A Year Marked by Cambodia’s Disputed Election

On July 28, more than 6.5 million Cambodians cast their ballots in the country’s fifth election since the establishment of the Kingdom of Cambodia in 1993.

Thus began the present chapter of Cambodia’s democracy, in which a weakened CPP, while still in power, must contend with a united—and widely popular—opposition party for long-term control of the country.

Although there has been little progress toward ending its ongoing dispute with the CNRP, the CPP has made significant concessions, and unprecedented reforms, in the election fallout.

Previously intolerant of public protests against its government, the CPP has shown remarkable restraint as the CNRP, as well as a broad swath of activist groups, have taken to the streets to demand greater accountability from the administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Demonstrations, once risky and rare, had become a daily part of life in Phnom Penh by the end of 2013.

Within the government, Mr. Hun Sen has undertaken a decentralization program in which the vast portfolio of government bodies under the control of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who controls the Council of Ministers, have been eliminated or placed under the management of relevant CPP ministers.

The government says it is eliminating redundancies in order to allow CPP ministers to do their job. Political analysts suggest the measures may also serve to placate a frustrated ruling party bureaucracy.

Along Cambodia’s famously porous borders, customs officials have begun enforcing taxation laws that have long been on the books, but disregarded in favor of informal payments. The long-term aim is to increase much-needed state revenue. The short-term effect has been an unpopular hike in prices.

Formed only a year before the election from the merger of the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, the CNRP has proven itself to be a worthy foe. While regularly changing tactics and often contradicting previous promises, the party led by Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha has not strayed from its central demand that something be done to resolve the injustice of July’s election, which they claim the CPP won through manipulation and fraud.

Over the past five months, the CNRP has shifted from rallies in Freedom Park calling for an investigation into the election to massive demonstrations on the streets of the capital calling for Mr. Hun Sen to step down. What started with bands of youth riding through the streets calling for change before the election has evolved into a comprehensive opposition movement made up of people from almost every sphere of society.

During the election year, the courts have shown forgiveness for dissidents imprisoned on convictions widely seen as being politically motivated.
Just weeks before the election, CNRP president Sam Rainsy was pardoned by King Norodom Sihamoni, allowing him to return to the country from self-imposed exile in France, where he was avoiding convictions on disinformation and incitement charges for removing posts along the Vietnamese border in 2009.

Mam Sonando, a populist radio station owner and pro-democracy activist, was freed in March after being sentenced in October 2012 to 20 years in prison for allegedly inciting an insurrection among rural farmers in Kratie province.

Yorm Bopha, an outspoken anti-eviction activist from the former Boeng Kak lake community, was arrested and jailed in September 2012 and sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly ordering an attack on two motorbike drivers. Under intense pressure by human rights groups, the courts released her on bail in November and Ms. Bopha’s case was sent back to the Court of Appeal for investigation.

And after spending five of the past 10 years behind bars, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who rights groups say are scapegoats wrongfully convicted of the murder of prominent union activist Chea Vichea in 2004, were released from prison in September.

However, impunity still reigned for those within the government.

The shooting deaths of two civilians—bystanders to clashes between police and protesters—in the wake of the election have gone unpunished, with the government denying any police wrongdoing, despite numerous eye-witness accounts of state security forces opening fire on unarmed demonstrators.

The families of Mao Sok Chan, a motorcycle-taxi driver stuck in traffic following a day of CNRP demonstrations, and Eng Sokhom, a food vendor working near Stung Meanchey bridge during clashes between police and garment workers, have received monetary compensation for the death of their loved ones, but no justice.

The search for Chhouk Bundith, the former Bavet City governor who shot three demonstrating garment workers in February 2012, has been futile and called a “mockery” by rights groups. Cheam Yeap, a senior CPP lawmaker and party spokesman, was a passenger in a fatal hit and run in which his SUV plowed into a motorbike and fled the scene, leaving a 26-year-old woman to die of head trauma. Mr. Hun Sen also implicated himself in aiding an alleged crime when he claimed that he told police not to arrest opposition leader Kem Sokha, whom the prime minister alleged paid a 15-year-old virgin for sex in 2011. Mr. Hun Sen said he called off police out of fear that he would be accused of interfering in Mr. Sokha’s personal affairs.

There was also no progress in bringing to justice the killers of at least three union activists, 11 journalists, scores of opposition politicians and at least four female celebrities—all believed to have been assassinated over political motivations in the past two decades.

The hybrid U.N./national Khmer Rouge tribunal saw the end of hearings in its lengthy second case against the surviving and elderly leaders of the Khmer Rouge, but former foreign minister Ieng Sary was no longer among them having died in March. A verdict in the case is expected in the first half of this year.

Cambodia’s economy continued its steady expansion, growing by more than 7 percent, with similar growth forecasts for the next two years. However, the garment industry, the country’s largest employer and exporter, continued to be plagued by industrial action that peaked at the end of the year, following the government’s decision to raise the minimum wage to $95—later revised to $100—setting off nationwide labor strikes among unions demanding a $160 monthly wage.

The international spotlight was briefly focused on safety concerns in the garment industry in May when two workers were killed under a collapsed mezzanine at a shoe factory in Kompong Speu province, a tragedy that came in the wake of the collapse in April of an industrial building in Bangladesh, which left 1,129 dead and more than 2,500 injured.

Prime Minister Hun Sen rolled out a comprehensive plan to drastically boost rubber production over the next five years. The prime minister said that 840,000 hectares of agricultural land would be planted with rubber trees by 2018, up from 280,000 in 2013. Mr. Hun Sen also said Cambodia would overtake Vietnam in rubber production in that time. Cambodia exported $158 million of rubber last year, while Vietnam exported $2.8 billion worth.

The government also reported 332,000 tons of rice exports in the first 11 months of 2013, putting it on pace to double 2012 rice exports, but still well below its goal of exporting 1 million tons of rice annually by 2015.

Cambodia’s relations with China, the largest source of foreign investment, grew increasingly close throughout the year, with the formation of an inter-government committee on cooperation and the signing of numerous loan and investment deals potentially worth billions of dollars. The Chinese government also committed more than $100 million in soft loans last year, adding to the more than $2 billion Cambodia already owes the Asian superpower.

Despite calls from the CNRP for foreign embassies to refrain from doing business with Mr. Hun Sen’s government until a resolution to the post-election impasse is found, aid and investment has continued to flow in from Japan, South Korea, Germany and other major donors.

The U.S., which spends millions each year on programs to promote democracy and good governance in the country, has been the most vocal diplomatic voice in the post-election political dispute, continuing to back calls for an investigation into the election.

Global Fund, which gave $220 million to Cambodia between 2003 and 2010 to fight infectious diseases here, was the most recent international organization to uncover the systematic corruption pervasive within the country’s bureaucracy.

A report on Global Fund’s 2012 investigation into the handling of funds in Cambodia found that more than $12 million out of $220 million in expenses had been compromised, with officials working in the Ministry of Health accused of setting up fake bank accounts and demanding bribes in return for contracts.

Internet use in the country continued to soar, reaching 15 percent of the total population, with Facebook becoming a central channel of communication for many young people. The opposition CNRP launched an aggressive social media campaign prior to the election, and has continued to broadcast the party’s every move online. Mr. Hun Sen pledged in his first speech following the formation of the new CPP government not to shut down the social networking site, but at least two people were questioned by police for allegedly defamatory posts.

The year began with the mourning of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who passed away in October 2012 and was cremated in February during a funeral in which hundreds of thousands of people descended on Phnom Penh for an ornate and carefully orchestrated four-day ceremony bidding farewell to the King Father.

The former king’s casket, placed at the center of a $1.5 million crematorium built for the occasion, was finally set alight by Mr. Hun Sen, after several failed attempts by Buddhist clergy and members of the royal family, the prime minister claimed in a speech following the funeral.

Seven months later, the monarchy was once again the center of attention when King Norodom Sihamoni made the controversial decision to preside over the opening of the National Assembly, despite a boycott by 55 elected opposition lawmakers.

The King joined 68 CPP lawmakers, along with ambassadors and dignitaries, for the formation of a new parliament despite intense lobbying from the CNRP, civil society groups and Buddhist monks for the king to withhold his blessing until the political dispute was resolved, as his father had done following the 2003 election.

Although the CNRP has continued to refuse to take its seats in parliament, Cambodia in 2013 has become a two-party state. On one side, a ruling party shaken but still firmly in power. On the other, an opposition trying to figure out how to turn its newfound popularity into a lasting political victory.

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