2004 The Year in Review

With the stroke of midnight on Dec 31, Cambodia saw the end to an eventful year, one in which a new King was crowned, a government was formed, a prominent union leader was gunned down and Cambodia entered the World Trade Organization.

After serving more than 60 years at the helm of Cambodia’s turbulent political landscape, King Norodom Sihanouk shocked the nation and the world when he announced his retirement on Oct 7.

While he cited health reasons for his decision, observers saw the move as a calculated coup by the aging monarch to secure his successor.

His decision prompted an unprecedented Oct 14 meeting of the Royal Council of the Throne, which in less than 40 minutes, named Prince Norodom Sihamoni, the royal couple’s only surviving son, as King Sihanouk’s heir.

Accusations started flying immediately after Norodom Sihanouk’s retirement announcement, as the CPP and Funcinpec blamed opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who had written a letter to Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Norodom Monineath the previous day to tell them of “alarming news” that a violent protest against the royal couple had been organized for their return from Beijing. Sam Rainsy alleged the government had plotted to hold a demonstration with the intent to frame his party for the anti-monarchy protests.

On Oct 20, absent of any violent protest, the newly named King Norodom Sihamoni and his parents arrived in Phnom Penh from Beijing. It was the first time the new King, a former ballet dancer and filmmaker, had been to Cambodia in almost a year. He had been living in France for more than a decade.

In a lavish three-day celebration from Oct 29 to 31, King Sihamoni ascended the throne.

The smooth royal accession stood in stark relief to the animosity between the country’s political parties, which hurled lawsuits at each other throughout the year.

The CPP, Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party filed complaints against one another, raging from allegations of bribery, corruption and defamation to charges of forming illegal armed forces and masterminding political killings.

The long-awaited formation of a government in July signaled an end to Funcinpec’s months-long Alliance of Democrats with the Sam Rainsy Party and a reunion of the royalists’ old coalition with the CPP.

The nearly 11-month political deadlock, resulting from the 2003 national election, came to an end on July 15 with Hun Sen retaining his position as prime minister.

As part of their power-sharing deal, the CPP and Funcinpec created a massively expanded government with a Cabinet nearly twice the size of the previous mandate and believed to be one of the largest in the world. It is comprised of seven deputy prime ministers, 15 senior ministers, 28 ministers, 135 secretaries of state and some 146 undersecretaries of state.

With the deadlock finally over, the National Assembly could get back to work and address a backlog of legislation, including the ratification of Cambodia’s accession to the World Trade Organization on Oct 13.

Ministry of Economics and Finance officials hoped WTO membership would promote trade and investment in Cambodia as the country faced an end to the garment quota system at the end of 2004. But, government officials and economists warned, the advantages of entering the WTO would only be seen if the government took measures to clear up corruption and improve the climate for foreign investors.

The Assembly also finally approved the laws required to establish a Khmer Rouge tribunal. Following years of discussion, negotiation and accusations of stalling, the Senate signed off on the legislation on Nov 5.

On Dec 10, the UN and the government set the final working budget for a three-year Khmer Rouge tribunal at $56.3 million and proposed it be held at the newly constructed RCAF headquarters on the capital’s outskirts, despite millions of dollars in renovations to the original siteÑChaktomuk Theater.

Sean Visoth, secretary of the government’s tribunal task force, said Cambodia will shoulder about $13 million of the budget, a significantly larger portion than the $7 million the government had been bargaining for.

But whether a tribunal can begin in 2005 remains to be seen. In a report to the UN’s General Assembly dated Oct 12, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the tribunal would not go forward unless donations for the full cost were secured and at least one year of funding was in the bank. So far, only Australia has put money forward in the form of $2.1 million while Japan and France have promised $2.3 million and $3 million respectively.

The year 2004 was also a dark one for the country’s labor unions. The start of year was marred by the slaying of Chea Vichea, president of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

On Jan 22, the 40-year-old union leader was sitting on the corner of Sihanouk Boulevard and Street 51 reading a newspaper when two men pulled up on a motorcycle and shot him in the head, chest and left arm before riding off.

More than 15,000 mourners took to the streets on Jan 25 for Chea Vichea’s cremation ceremony amid calls for justice and accusations of responsibility leveled at Hun Sen’s government.

Days later, police presented Sok Sam Oeun, 36, and Born Samnang, 23, to the public as the killers. The two men proclaimed their innocence but on Jan 30, Born Samnang recanted and told reporters he was hired to kill Chea Vichea. Sok Sam Oeun maintained he was innocent. Critics called the arrests and confession a “show” and several witnesses testified that the two men were nowhere near Chea Vichea when he was killed.

On March 22, Municipal Court Investigating Judge Hing Thirith dropped the charges against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun. However, the two remained jailed pending a Appeals Court decision.
The following day, Hing Thirith was removed from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and on July 1, Appeals Court Presiding Judge Thou Mony reversed Hing Thirith’s decision and ordered the case back to Phnom Penh Municipal Court for further investigation.

Cambodians received an eerie reminder of the murder of Chea Vichea when Ros Sovannareth, a union leader at Trinunggal Komara garment factory, was shot dead on May 7.

Hotel unions, meanwhile, were embroiled in a dispute with employers over the disbursement of service charges. The dispute escalated into a wide scale strike in April at some of the country’s most up market hotels, particularly the Raffles-owned Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh and the Grand d’Angkor in Siem Reap.

Some 300 workers at the two hotels were dismissed following the strike. In August, the Arbitration Council ordered the Grand d’Angkor to reinstate most of its 209 fired workers.

In one of the most high-profile court cases in 2004, Hun Sen’s nephew, Nhim Sophea, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in relation to an Oct 27, 2003 crash and shooting that claimed the lives of three innocent people and left four injured.

On March 11, following a closed-door trial, Nhim Sophea was sentenced to three years in jail and five years probation. Another man, Sam Doeun, of whom little is known, was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison.

A day later, Nhim Sophea was moved to Monivong Hospital because of stomach problems and disappeared from headlines until Dec 16 when Hun Sen praised the judge who put his nephew behind bars and said the children of government officials who commit crimes would not be protected.

Four days later, Appeals Court Judge Thou Mony confirmed Nhim Sophea had in fact been cleared of all charges related to the crime during a hushed hearing on Aug 26. Sam Doeun, who is still at large, was found fully responsible for the deaths.

Nhim Chandara, Nhim Sophea’s father, said his son had been working, studying and traveling around Asia for several months. Court and police officials appeared confused as to who was responsible for finding Sam Doeun.

In a more remote region of the country, hundreds of Montagnard asylum-seekers fleeing Vietnam’s Central Highlands took to hiding in the jungles of Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri provinces.

Montagnards began streaming across the border into Cambodia after Vietnamese authorities cracked down on their Easter weekend demonstrations for land and religious rights.

The Cambodian government initially refused to recognize the existence of asylum-seekers hiding in the country’s jungles. But in July, it gave permission for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to visit Ratanakkiri, where the refugee agency took an initial 181 asylum-seekers into its protection.

Since, the UNHCR has taken into protection a total of more than 700 Montagnards, most of whom were collected from Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri.

According to the UNHCR, however, many of the Montagnards have rejected offers to resettle to a third country and are demanding to stay in Cambodia in a bid to highlight their plight and to gain support from the international community for the return of their land in the Central Highlands.

Throughout 2004, the government was inundated with criticism from NGOs, aid and development groups and other organizations, while the government vowed to implement promised reforms.

Critics cited continuing forestry and land issues, a government ban on peaceful demonstrations and the poor state of the country’s judicial system.

As the year progressed, more attention was focused on what response international donors would give when they met as the Consultative Group in early December.

When the donors sat down with the government on Dec 6, they stressed the need for reform. The message echoed what the same donors had said when they last met in 2002. That year, they had set a number of benchmarks that were to be met if the government wanted continued support. Two years later, many of those benchmarks had not been met.

By the end of the two-day summit on Dec 7, however, the donors had pledged $504 million in loans and grants.

One day after the Consultative Group meeting, a Phnom Penh women’s shelter operated by the NGO Afesip was attacked.

Ninety-one women and girls were taken from the shelter, including 83 who had been rescued from the Chai Hour II Hotel a day before following a raid by anti human trafficking police.

Many of the women who had been rescued were back at the hotel within days.

Afesip, the US State Department and several governments condemned the raid and the government’s lack of response, with the US threatening to downgrade Cambodia on its global trafficking watch list.

The government, the hotel owner and some of the women themselves said they had escaped after being illegally detained by Afesip.

A complaint was filed on behalf of the 83 women employed by the Chai Hour II Hotel on Dec 13, demanding Afesip pay $20,000 to each woman for incorrectly identifying them as sex workers and holding them against their will.

While observers said they did not doubt Afesip’s good intentions, some questioned the organization’s methods in removing the women from the hotel and the ensuing temporary detention of adult women who may, or may not, have opted to work as prostitutes.

What had already been an eventful year was capped in the final days of the last month when Funcinpec’s President Prince Norodom Ranariddh told reporters on Dec 23 that he and Prime Minister Hun Sen had spoke of merging their two parties together to face off against the Sam Rainsy Party in the 2008 national election.

While Sam Rainsy cheered the announcement, saying it signaled Funcinpec’s weakness and its inability to run alone in the next election, senior CPP officials balked at the idea of a merger, saying they wanted their party to keep its identity.

Days later, Prince Ranariddh’s Cabinet Chief Noranarith Anandayath retracted the prince’s statements.

The prince had not meant that he wanted the party to merge with the CPP, the Cabinet chief said, rather: “The media confused the meaning of Prince Norodom Ranariddh.”

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