Freedom House Says Cambodia Still Not Free

Cambodia has again earned a “not free” ranking for the 40th year in a row from the influential U.S.-based organization Freedom House, which found that political rights and civil liberties here continue to be curbed by the government.

Out of 195 countries and 14 territories ranked by Freedom House, Cambodia was in the company of the likes of its neighbor Burma—which had im­proved since last year-—Azer­bai­jan, Oman, Jordan, Mauritania and the Republic of the Congo.

According to Freedom House, which released its findings last week, “a not free country is one where basic political rights are absent, and basic civil liberties are widely and systematically denied.”

Cambodia’s rank in both these categories is unchanged from last year and 2011, with political rights receiving a score of 6 and civil liberties pegged at 5. Freedom House uses a numerical rating of 1 to 7 to cal­culate such freedoms, or lack there­of, with 7 representing the least free.

In all, Cambodia was among 47 countries found to be not free. Among its Asean counterparts, Cambodia is one of five not free countries. Indonesia scored 2 for political rights and 3 for civil liberties, making it the only Asean member to be considered as free.

Malaysia, the Philippines, Sing­apore and Thailand were deemed partly free and Laos fared the worst of all, with 7 for political rights and 6 for civil liberties.

Though still not free, continued political liberalization in Burma gave it a boost compared to its score last year. Burma also outdid China, which scored the same as Laos for rights and liberties.

“For all its lingering problems, Burma has now surpassed China on both political rights and civil liberties,” Freedom House said.

Council of Ministers spokes­man Phay Siphan disagreed with the report, insisting that it did not reflect reality.

He said Freedom House had not produced a “quality report,” and questioned Cambodia’s placement among its Asean neighbors.

“If we compare Cambodia to others in Asean, what they rank doesn’t reflect what’s going on in each country,” he said. “I think Cam­bodia is better than some of them, but I don’t want to insult anyone.”

Still, human rights groups have said 2012 was one of the worst in Cambodia’s recent history with regard to human rights, and several controversial court cases last year, such as imprisonment of popular radio station owner Mam Sonando and jailing of Boeng Kak activist Yorm Bopha, did little to dispel that belief.

While Cambodia is failing to improve in some freedoms, it is faring slightly better economically, the U.S.-based Heritage Foun­da­tion said in its new annual Eco­nomic Freedom Index report re­leased earlier this month.

The organization, which looks at several aspects of economic freedoms of 177 countries, as­sessed that Cambodia improved from last year, ranking 95th with a score of 58.5. Last year, Cambodia placed 102 out of 184 countries, with a score of 57.6.

“Its overall score is 0.9 [percent] better than last year due to im­provements in trade freedom and labor freedom,” the Heritage Foundation report said. “Cambo­dia is ranked 16th out of 41 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, and its overall score is slightly higher than the regional average.”

“The maintenance of relatively sound public finance management has contributed to economic stability,” the report added.

However, “substantial challenges remain, particularly in implementing deeper institutional and systemic reforms that are critical to strengthening the foundations of economic freedom,” it said, adding that property rights and corruption continue to hinder investment.

Mr. Siphan said Cambodia was faring well considering its recent history.

“If you compare the age of Cam­bodian freedom and economy, we started from 1998,” he said. “So in the space of transformation and modification, if you compare us to the others we are kind of a baby.”

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said both reports were accurate in their assessment of Cambo­dia’s political, civil and economic freedoms. However, he said, last year’s poor human rights record should have sent the country further down in the Freedom House rankings.

“The system has evolved into what is a neopatrimonialism,” Mr. Mong Hay said.

“This is the 20th anniversary of our Constitution. In our Consti­tu­tion, the system should be a pluralistic liberal democracy, but since 1993, it has evolved into a system of control by a dominant group of powerful and rich people.

“It has been utilizing state institutions as instruments of control through the media, religion, education, the courts and security forces,” he added.

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