The top news story of 2007 was undoubtedly the long-awaited beginning of judicial proceedings at the Khmer Rouge tribunal and the arrest and detention of five of the Khmer Rouge regime’s foremost leaders.
The arrests by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia represented a historic step that many felt would never happen.
Indeed, the first half of 2007 was a rocky period for the court, with a series of disagreements that appeared to threaten the tribunal.
Disagreements over the court’s internal rules spilled over from late 2006, with the international and Cambodian sides of the court looking firmly at odds over their contents.
The situation was exacerbated by allegations that tribunal staff had paid kickbacks for their jobs, and a battle began with the Cambodian Bar Association over fees for foreign lawyers.
The dispute with the bar association was ultimately resolved, and the internal regulations of the court were finally approved in June. From that point proceedings moved rapidly with Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, the director of the notorious Khmer Rouge torture prison S-21 being placed in tribunal custody on July 31. From there the ECCC arrested Nuon Chea, the most senior living Khmer Rouge leader; Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary; his wife and Khmer Rouge Minister of Social Action Ieng Thirith; and finally Khieu Samphan, Democratic Kampuchea’s head of state.
With these five currently in detention, it now remains to be seen if further prosecutions will be pursued in 2008.
Despite the preeminence of the tribunal, the past year had no lack of other notable moments for Cambodia.
On the economic front, GDP growth appeared to slow somewhat in 2007, dipping below 10 percent but remaining robust. Concerns were voiced about the narrowness of the Cambodian economy, which still relies heavily on garment exports, tourism and construction. And inflationary pressures emerged, particularly hikes in the price of gasoline, which consequently pushed up the cost of other goods and services.
Still, tourism growth appeared to be on pace with recent years, continuing to grow at around 20 percent. Garment exports also continued to grow, but data from the first half of the year indicated that growth was slower than in previous years. The explanation for slowing growth could be that Camodia is facing a new competitor in Vietnam, whose ascendancy to the World Trade Organization in early 2007 removed quotas that gave Cambodia a competitive edge.
Politically, 2007 was a watershed year for Prince Norodom Ranariddh—an impressive, if not entirely positive, feat for a man who has not stepped on Cambodian soil since Jan 7.
Having been convicted in a breach of trust case in March and sentenced to 18 months in prison, the prince has divided his time between France and Malaysia, but he and his Norodom Ranariddh Party still managed to keep a hand in many of the political happenings of the year.
April 1 saw Cambodia’s second commune election. As expected the CPP dominated the vote, taking a marginally greater share than they did in the 2002 commune election.
Funcinpec was trounced in the poll, losing more than 87 percent of its commune council seats nationwide. All told, royalist parties took home just 6 percent of the 11,353 available seats.
The biggest benefactor of the split in the royalist vote in 2007 was undoubtedly the SRP, which very nearly doubled the number of seats it previously held at the commune level.
Although the election, and the run-up to it, went off almost entirely peacefully, turnout was low compared to previous elections, sparking some concerns over the registration process.
Since the election, there has been much maneuvering among the SRP, NRP and the newly formed Human Rights Party, which was officially launched by former Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Kem Sokha in July.
In the weeks following the election, the SRP called for a “Democratic Movement” to take on the CPP in 2008. The proposal drew at least an initial approval from Prince Ranariddh, but the plan seemed to quickly fizzle.
The prince revived the idea himself in October, pushing for a so-called mass movement of democrats and nationalists, but was then rejected by the SRP.
In the interim, Sam Rainsy made the unprecedented statement in August that there were scenarios following the 2008 national election in which the SRP would consider forming a coalition government with its long-time arch enemy, the CPP.
In November, Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen chatted at length in public at Phnom Penh International Airport, an occurrence few have witnessed in recent memory. The subject of their conversation was Prince Ranariddh, who had apparently been looking to negotiate with the CPP.
In the early part of the year, a series of behind-the-scenes meetings took place between the NRP and Funcinpec in the hopes of reuniting the prince with the party he formerly led.
Funcinpec officials seemed to vacillate weekly on whether they wanted the prince to return as the party’s leader. Ultimately, however, they seemed to reject the prince, choosing his younger half-sister Princess Norodom Arunrasmey as their prime minister candidate for the 2008 national election.
Kampuchea Krom, long an emotional issue for Cambodians, came to the fore in 2007 with Khmer Krom monks protesting in the streets of Phnom Penh against the mistreatment of ethnic Khmer Buddhist clergy in southern Vietnam.
Two protests by Khmer Krom monks in Phnom Penh devolved into violence—once in April when local monks confronted the protestors and once in December when police dispersed a non-violent protest outside the Vietnamese Embassy.
The issue was brought into sharp relief over the case of Khmer Krom abbot Tim Sakhorn, who was defrocked in June for allegedly damaging relations with Hanoi. He was subsequently deported—some say forcibly—to Vietnam, where he was tried and imprisoned for supposed political crimes.
A number of Khmer Krom suspects were also arrested for their alleged involvement in a failed bombing in July of the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument in Phnom Penh.
The year also saw the removal of several high-profile officials, beginning with the ouster of Funcinpec Tourism Minister Lay Prohas in May for reasons that were never explained in detail.
Ly Vuochleng, president of the Appeal Court and the highest-ranking woman in the Cambodian judiciary, was removed from her position, reportedly for accepting bribes in a controversial human trafficking case. And Kandal Provincial Governor Khim Bo lost his job over the illegal filling-in of a major lake in his province, although he received a prestigious position at the Council of Ministers just days later.
In January, Sihanoukville’s Keng Kang Airport reopened, boosting hopes of drawing more tourists to the municipality. However, a PMT Air flight to the airport in June crashed in Kampot province, killing all 22 people aboard. A second plane crash-landed in Kandal province in October, but those onboard survived. Both crashes involved aging Antonov airplanes, prompting the government to ground all planes made by the Russian manufacturer.
On the more unusual side of the news, a media frenzy focused on Ratanakkiri province in January following the discovery of a so-called jungle woman. The unfortunate young woman was thought by villagers to be a local couple’s long lost daughter who had disappeared in the forest years earlier.
In August a riot broke out at Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh following a football match between the Cambodian and Brunei under-17 national teams. The reason for the riot was not that Cambodia lost the game, but rather that the home squad had not covered the spread in betting on their victory against lowly Brunei.
And in February, Phnom Penh municipality issued a ban on advertisements on tuk-tuks.
The decree brought the advertising issue all the way from the backs of local transports to the highest level of government, with Hun Sen himself stepping in later to squash the city’s unpopular measure.