Bidding Farewell to 2009, a Year of Ups and Downs

Cambodia entered 2009 embroiled in the effects of the world economic crisis and set to embark on the first trial of a former commander of the Khmer Rouge regime.

During the course of the year, the government faced accusations that it was silencing voices in the media and the opposition. The economic meltdown touched nearly all of the country’s main sectors and relations with Thailand were a rollercoaster, swinging from armed conflict at Preah Vihear Temple in the north to heated diplomatic tit-for-tats in the capital.

Child rape cases were again devastatingly high, malaria deaths increased as did lightening strikes and acid attacks in comparison to 2008.

But there were bright spots in the year.

Cambodia saw an influx of foreign banks setting up in Phnom Penh, the agricultural sector became a focus of investor interest and the nation’s athletes won 40 medals at the Southeast Asia Games in Laos, more than double the amount won in 2007. The Council of Ministers in December approved an investor-friendly law on foreign ownership of condominiums and a series of trade agreements, most notably with China and Vietnam, were signed.

The year began in celebratory style: On Jan 7, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, tens of thousands of people converged on Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium.

January also marked the beginning of another year of tearful land evictions, a phenomenon being made evermore complex as development projects took hold.

On Jan 24, hundreds of police and military police cleared Phnom Penh’s Dey Krahorm community after years of struggle with the municipality, who handed the almost 4 hectare plot of city center land over to 7NG, a private developer with links to the CPP.

Two days later, Prime Minister Hun Sen told the weekly Council of Ministers that former RCAF Commander in Chief Ke Kim Yan had been removed from his position, though little was revealed by the government as to why.

Amidst efforts to develop anticorruption measures and fresh from news of the death of former Khmer Rouge Commerce Minister Van Rith, one of several Khmer Rouge suspects, Duch stood trial for the first time on Feb 17.

His trial was placed on a media pedestal due to his role as head of the Khmer Rouge special branch known as S-21. Investigators found that rulings from Duch resulted in the extraction, mutilation and murder of men, women and children from nearly every one of society’s domains.

The trial at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia was the first modern tribunal to allow victims full procedural rights, though the international community was troubled by corruption allegations and accusations that the government was influencing the court.

As the first quarter of the financial year drew to a close, it was becoming clearer that Cambodia’s narrow-based economy—which consists mainly of garments, construction and agriculture—was being severely bruised by the global economic crisis.

On March 6, the International Monetary Fund officially declared Cambodia would fall into recession in 2009. Economists here changed their tone from the end of 2008 when most portrayed Cambodia as immunized from any effects from the credit crunch in the United States.

Though Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly belittled the IMF’s findings, reports soon started to surface that job losses in the country’s garment and construction sectors were commonplace. The opposition Sam Rainsy Party in March suggested the government devise a $500 million stimulus package to help bolster the economy-a suggestion the government dismissed.

About a week later Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh said the garment sector had shed 51,000 jobs in six months, urging the government to introduce a series of reform policies to help diversify and speed up production.

Also in March, the UN announced that five women were dying in childbirth every day in Cambodia and a series of other reports, showed that poverty levels risked increasing due to a the economic turmoil in the country.

“No progress has been seen on maternal health rate since 2000,” said UN Resident Coordinator Douglas Roderick at the time.

Tension persisted at the Thai-Cambodian border at Preah Vihear temple, where a border dispute had arisen nine months previous.

On April 3, Thai and Cambodian troops clashed in two separate battles at Veal Entry located about two kilometers from the 11th-century temple.

Cambodian officials said at the time that four Thai soldiers were killed during the armed struggle. Thai mortars also burned a Cambodian market at the base of the temple to the ground, and destroyed more than 200 small businesses.

Meanwhile Phnom Penh’s electricity grid was being linked to Vietnam, part of the government’s wider policy to interconnect Cambodia with the region.

Then, in what would become a chain of high profile court cases between those in the government and members of the opposition, SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua announced she would file a defamation lawsuit against Prime Minister Hun Sen on April 23 for allegedly making insulting remarks about her during a speech on April 4 in Kampot province.

Almost immediately, Mr Hun Sen announced he would file a counter defamation lawsuit against Ms Sochua in response to her defamation lawsuit against him. Ms Sochua’s case was thrown out by the court, while Mr Hun Sen’s case against her is still ongoing.

The following month the UN concluded its review of the government’s human rights practices, gravely bringing into question its record on housing rights, evictions and corruption within the courts.

Despite the government’s poor record on all of the above, the ruling CPP, as expected, dominated the polls in the first-ever nationwide council elections on May 18, picking up about 75 percent of the newly established municipal, district and provincial councils.

The election results came as the UN Development Program announced that Cambodia was one of Asean’s least competitive nations for business and must take “urgent policy responses” to mitigate the effects of the global economic crisis.

All the while, defamation, disinformation and incitement lawsuits continued to mount. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court summoned another SRP lawmaker, Ho Vann, for questioning over his apparent criticism of postgraduate degrees awarded by a Vietnamese military institute to scores of senior RCAF military officials.

Also that month, the editor-in-chief of the opposition-aligned Khmer Machas Srok newspaper, Hang Chakra, was summoned to the court for questioning over a disinformation suit concerning articles that accused officials working for Cabinet Minister Sok An of corruption. Mr Chakra was later sentenced on June 26 to one year in prison.

US Ambassador Carol Rodley said while speaking at an anti-corruption concert in Phnom Penh in May that corruption costs Cambodia up to $500 million each year.

“Five hundred million is equivalent to the cost of constructing 20,000 six-room school buildings or the ability to pay every civil servant in Cambodia an additional $260 a month,” she said at the time.

In early June the government swiftly rejected Ms Rodley’s analysis of corruption levels in Cambodia even as an international survey released on June 2 by Transparency International showed that 47 percent of Cambodian families had paid some form of bribe in the last year.

Allegations of corruption were further backed when it became apparent that senior Justice Ministry official, Prum Pisith, was charged with accepting at least $250,000 to forge documents to have convicted Russian pedophile Alexander Trofimov in an alleged attempt to have him released on the pretense of being extradited to Russia, where he faces similar charges.

On June 10, Ms Sochua’s lawsuit against Mr Hun Sen was dismissed by the court, which proceeded to lift her parliamentary immunity so that the Prime Minister’s counter suit could proceed.

On June 15, the UN said that law suits against the opposition and civil society members were excessive and were threatening freedom of expression in the country.

On June 18, twenty families in the HIV/AIDS community at Borei Keila quietly, but reluctantly gathered up their belongings and headed for their new homes at a relocation site on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, in an eviction that was immediately condemned by the human rights body of the UN.

Social tension inside the country was matched with tension up at Preah Vihear temple in July. On July 7 Cambodia celebrated its one-year anniversary of the temple’s classification as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Cambodia sent an envoy of 911 paratroop commandoes to reinforce trenches at the temple and remain on high alert during the anniversary celebrations. Meanwhile in Phnom Penh, national flags filled the streets. For a day, at least, Cambodia could sit proudly.

Almost six months after the violent eviction of Phnom Penh’s Dey Krahorm community, dozens of families of the capital’s Group 78 community were evicted on July 17. Human rights groups, donor countries and international organizations alike said the residents’ claim to land rights had not been adequately determined prior to the eviction carried out by City Hall officials.

In contrast to City Hall, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said the relocation of residents was forced.

The effects of the economic crisis continued to trundle on and the UN reported the turmoil was sending more people into poverty and had led to a sizeable influx of women and girls entering the country’s sex trade.

On July 27, Cambodia launched its new national carrier, Cambodia Angkor Air, the fruition of which came after years of frustration and failed deals.

On Aug 4, Ms Sochua was declared guilty of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen and ordered to pay about $4,100 in fines and compensation by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. SRP lawmakers, including Ms Sochua herself proceeded to protest in the streets of Phnom Penh, an event that was broken up by police.

August 31 saw Chea Ratha, the former senior military police official sought for her involvement in a brutal acid attack in 2008 that seriously injured Ya Soknim, 39, the aunt of Ms Ratha’s lover, karaoke star In Solyda acquitted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

But to the relief of human rights groups the Appeals Court overturned the acquittal and sentenced Ms Ratha and her five accomplices to at least 15 years in jail in November. All six guilty parties, however, are still a large.

September saw another glimmer of light appear for justice in the country.

In early September the first three US pedophiles were charged in Cambodia under the international initiative, Operation Twisted Traveler, a judicial program that specifically aims at prosecuting US Sex tourists traveling to Cambodia.

September was also a hectic month for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said that an attempt by tribunal prosecutors to open investigations into new suspects could start another civil war.

Floods continued to hit the country, this time in Kampot province. And on the final day of the month Typhoon Ketsana slammed into northern parts of Cambodia, leaving in its wake downed trees, flooded villages and hundreds of destroyed homes.

For weeks afterward, Oxfam agencies reiterated the need for emergency aid for thousands of affected families whose livelihoods are today still undergoing transition from the flood’s devastating aftermath.

Meanwhile on Sep 19, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, a radical Thai group known for their trademark yellow shirts protested near Preah Vihear Temple against the presence of Cambodian troops in the area.

The following month was one of sheer hardship for Cambodia’s rural communities who were suffering from the Typhoon Ketsana’s onslaught. Displaced families stood at more than 14,000 families according to Oxfam in the first week of October.

The month of October also saw the beginning of what would become yet another drawn-out period of tense diplomatic uproar between Thailand and Cambodia.

On Oct 21 Mr Hun Sen offered exile to former fugitive Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had been ousted the previous year and sentenced to jail on corruption charges.

Mr Hun Sen further provoked outrage on Oct 23 when he offered Mr Thaksin a job as economic advisor to the Cambodian government.

The decision enraged the Thai government.

On Nov 1, the first day of the annual Water Festival boat races in Phnom Penh, the government’s National Committee for Disaster Management announced that 40,000 families lacked food because of the devastating effects Typhoon Ketsana.

As for the economy, the World Bank revised its GDP forecast to contract by 2.2 percent.

November was also the month that saw Thai-Cambodian diplomatic relations spiral out of control. In response to Cambodia’s decision to name Mr Thaksin as an economic advisor to the government, the Thai government decided to recall its ambassador from Cambodia. Almost immediately Cambodia followed in Thailand’s footsteps.

The aftermath saw trade between the two countries dwindle and the Thai government announced that all bilateral agreements between the two countries were to be reevaluated.

The most controversial agreement amongst these was probably a Memorandum of Understanding that called on both nations to jointly develop the 27,000-square kilometer “overlapping claims area” in the Gulf of Thailand, believed to be rich in gas and oil reserves.

On Nov 10 Mr Thaksin arrived in Cambodia to take up his new position as economic advisor. Thailand requested his extradition, which was refused by Cambodia.

Adding to the tension, Thai national Siwarak Chotipong was arrested for passing Mr Thaksin’s flight details to officials at the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh.

Later that month, Cambodia announced it had taken over operations at the Thai-operated Cambodia Air traffic services, where the so-called spy had been working.

The year’s end was now in sight, and so was one of one of Cambodia’s most historical events of recent times.

The trial of former S-21 prison chairman Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch, concluded on Nov 27 with a verdict due out early this year.

But in stunning fashion, Duch, against the wishes of his international defense lawyer Francois Roux, asked the court to acquit him and release him from detention, despite having previous admitted guilt in an attempt to reduce his prison sentence.

On Dec 7, a Cambodian delegation in Copenhagen participated in an international effort to strike a global and, above all, binding deal on climate change. But their hopes of achieving further funding for mitigation efforts and a concrete deal on the so-called REDD program, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, were short lived.

World leaders at the UN conference on climate change sealed nothing in terms of a legally binding deal and only promised minimal amounts of funding for poorer countries like Cambodia.

That month, 22 Chinese Uighurs seeking asylum in Cambodiawere deported on Dec 19 by the government, who said they were linked to a terrorist group in China.

However, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees gravely criticized the government’s decision to deport the Uighurs and placed doubt on the country’s ability to implement international law.

Members of civil society, the opposition and human rights groups have continued to raise concerns over a range of issues challenging the country.

Indeed, they say, more must be done to curb crime and corruption.

Human rights are still too often in violation. And despite some moves in the right direction the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow.

Today, the first day of 2010 will no doubt see more of the same. But to what extent and at what cost to society and the country’s image abroad?

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