How 2006 is remembered will depend on whom one asks.
Outside Cambodia, the story of the year was the long-awaited start of the Khmer Rouge tribunal and the sudden death of Khmer Rouge leader and key trial suspect Ta Mok.
Nationally, the main news was Sam Rainsy’s return to Cambodia and his rehabilitated relationship with Prime Minister Hun Sen, Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s spectacular political demise and the prospect of a huge oil windfall for Cambodia.
For many ordinary people, however, the political controversies mattered little compared to skyrocketing gasoline prices and related inflation eating away at incomes.
Phnom Penh witnessed mass evictions while the country in general saw an increasing number of rural people protesting alleged land grabbing by the rich and powerful.
Land disputes prompted top politicians to warn that a peasant revolution could be in store if land ownership was not guaranteed.
The economy boomed in 2006 with double-digit GDP growth buoyed by increased foreign investment, a record 6-million-ton rice crop at the beginning of the year, increasing garment exports and record tourism numbers.
But the year started on a less than auspicious note for human rights and freedom of expression.
SRP leader Sam Rainsy, living for months in self-imposed exile in 2005, he was sentenced to jail in December 2005 on defamation charges.
In early January, Kem Sokha, Yeng Virak and Pa Nguon Teang of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and Beehive Radio journalist Mam Sonando, and Cambodian Independent Teachers Association President Rong Chhun were also arrested and jailed on defamation charges. Five others were also charged with defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen.
A thaw began with the release of Yeng Virak on Jan 12 and the four other men on Jan 16, after Hun Sen met with US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill.
Prince Ranariddh’s decline unofficially began after the SRP announced Feb 1 that it would seek a compromise with Hun Sen in order to secure the release of SRP lawmaker Cheam Channy who was sentenced in August 2005 to seven years in prison for forming a so-called rebel army.
On Feb 6, Cheam Channy was freed.
In exile, Sam Rainsy expressed regret for past statements about Hun Sen and on Feb 5, was pardoned of the conviction of defamation by King Norodom Sihamoni at the prime minister’s request. Sam Rainsy returned from abroad, had a 3-hour meeting with Hun Sen on Feb 12, and the next day issued a call for the constitutional amendment known as the 50-percent-plus-1, which would eventually give the CPP the power to form a government without Funcinpec.
Since 1993, the CPP had needed Funcinpec as a coalition partner to meet the two-thirds supermajority of National Assembly members required to form a government.
SRP parliamentarians maintained the 50-plus-1 amendment-which reduced the Assembly requirement to a simple majority of seats-would offer them a greater chance to form a government on their own.
Prince Norodom Ranariddh resigned from the presidency of the National Assembly in February amid stinging criticism from Hun Sen over his personal life and as scores of royalist officials were removed from their positions in government.
On Feb 14, Hun Sen had opened a verbal barrage on Funcinpec saying it was draining the lifeblood of the CPP. On Feb 26, Hun Sen announced a crackdown on mistresses, which foreshadowed the controversial adultery law passed Sept 1, and for which currently only Prince Ranariddh appears to be the subject of prosecution.
Simmering for months, a full-scale power struggle emerged between Funcinpec secretary-general Nhiek Bun Chhay and the prince who had traveled overseas following his resignation from the Assembly. The prince was eventually ousted from the leadership of Funcinpec in October.
The prince retaliated by forming the Norodom Ranariddh Party, while his cousin Prince Sisowath Thomico founded a third royalist party, the Sangkum Jatiniyum Front.
Equally dramatic in 2006 was the fall from grace of Phnom Penh’s once most powerful police officer: Heng Pov.
Implicated in the murder of judge Sok Sethamony in 2003 as well as in several failed assassination attempts, Heng Pov fled to Singapore as his house was raided on July 31. He was convicted in absentia of Sok Sethamony’s murder on Sept 18.
The government made a record number of high-profile arrests of foreign child sex abusers in 2006, prompting rare praise that Cambodia’s days as a haven for pedophiles were numbered.
The government’s relationship with international donors hit choppy waters when the World Bank revealed in early June that millions of dollars in construction contracts across six ministries were improperly awarded.
The World Bank corruption scandal involved bid rigging, payoffs, and even an attempted murder plot, sources revealed.
The Anti-Corruption Law, delayed since 1994, became the key benchmark of donors at the high-level Consultative Group meeting in March.
But by year’s end, however, the law was still not passed though a temporary investigation body has been set up.
The year also saw the drafting of a new law on public protests, though the government continued to deny permits for many political gatherings.
In a more hopeful sign, the government permitted activists to rally on international human rights day Dec 10.
Dozens of key economic laws, however, remained stalled in the National Assembly, but a law reinstating the military draft and a law limiting the rights of parliamentarians were fast-tracked to approval in 2006.
The government’s much-touted land dispute authority also failed to resolve a single case in its first 10 months of operation.
After years of delay, Sihanoukville airport was undergoing renovations by year’s end and scheduled to open in January.
Tourism officials hope the new airport and a wave of new resort building will make Cambodia an international beach-going destination to equal Thailand.
Other welcome news came in the form of new healthcare statistics. Despite preparing for the possibility of a major Avian Influenza pandemic, only two Cambodians reportedly died of the disease in 2006, down from four in 2005. And child mortality and HIV/AIDS were reported to be on steep declines.
The top non-story of the year may have been the Senate elections, which to the surprise of none led to increased CPP domination of the expensive but largely ceremonial body.
On the odd side, the Year of the Dog led to an angry battle over the legality of dog meat in Phnom Penh. Villagers in Anlong Veng were found praying for good luck to the ghost of Pol Pot and in May, 3G phones were banned for fear mistresses would send pornographic pictures of themselves to their married boyfriends.