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Friday, July 25, 2008

Democracy thrives despite CPP dominance

Written by Sebastian Strangio and Khouth Sophak Chakrya

Cambodia goes to the polls on July 27 for a national election that is likely to see the Cambodian People’s Party abandon a long-standing coalition government arrangement and take total control of government, but analysts remain upbeat that a single-party government will not deter democracy in the long-term.

“The CPP will definitely win an outright majority,” said Benny Widyono, a former representative of the UN secretary general in Cambodia and author of Dancing in Shadows: Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and the United Nations in Cambodia.

“But the possibilities are there for change. I don’t think Cambodia will go back to a monolithic communist model,” Widyono added.

According to Widyono, the experience of other Asian nations such as Japan and India – both of which were effectively one-party states for decades but now boast viable, vocal opposition parties – should give Cambodian democrats hope, despite the obvious gulf between the ruling CPP and its challengers.

The National Assembly in 2006 pushed through a constitutional amendment replacing Cambodia’s two-thirds majority electoral system with a simple majority system that is expected to give the CPP, which controls 73 of the assembly’s 123 seats, the ability to rule alone.

While a single party state could “narrow democracy” in the short-term, it could in the long-run lead to a stronger opposition, said Koul Panha, executive director of the election monitoring group Comfrel.

“It could lead to a more effective implementation of reforms and respect for democracy,” he told the Post. “There is some risk of narrowing democracy, but I can see the opposition improving as well.”

Others said that single-party rule will in reality weaken the CPP over time, as it grows too complacent with its political dominance, opening the door to a stronger opposition.

“There may be problems of over-confidence on the part of the CPP once it no longer has to look over its shoulder at opponents,” said David Chandler, an author and leading scholar of Cambodian history.

Rising political awareness in the rural areas – historically CPP bastions – could also impact on the ruling party’s control, said Widyono.


There may be problems of over-confidence on the part of the CPP once it no longer has to look over its shoulder at opponents.


Following the ouster of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the CPP – then known as the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea – had 11 years to entrench itself at the grassroots level before the arrival of UNTAC, a historical advantage that still gives it an edge over today’s opposition parties.

“In 1979, you had Hun Sen, Heng Samrin and Chea Sim in charge, and now you have the same trio,” Widyono said. “It’s amazing that despite the UN intervention and the close involvement of the international community, Cambodia is still at square one.”

But the seeds for change lie in the countryside, he said. “The villages are much more vibrant now. They are not as docile as they once were. Because of decentralisation, the rural areas now have more power.”

That, however, is in the future, he acknowledged, saying that Cambodia’s rising economy and a rash of defections from the opposition would greatly bolster the CPP in this election.

“This election is all about economics, and now that the economy is vibrant, at the village level especially, it will favour the incumbents,” he said.

Also working to the CPP’s advantage is the disappearance of the royalist parties as a significant political force, Widyono said.

Funcinpec, the CPP’s coalition government partner since the UN-brokered elections in 1993, has suffered repeated internal upheavals during the past two years, including the ouster of its leader, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who went on to form his own self-named party.

But the royalists remain in disarray, while Ranariddh sits in self-imposed exile after a number of legal cases against him, including a fraud conviction and pending adultery charges, chased him from Cambodia.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think this will be the end of Funcinpec, and I think the Norodom Ranariddh Party will be ineffective,” Widyono said. “From now on there will be just two main parties: the [Sam Rainsy Party] and CPP.”

Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Yim Sovann said that his party would try to form a coalition in the event of an SRP victory on Sunday. “We welcome all parties to rule in coalition with us because we need their help and their resources, but we will rule alone if they refuse to work with us,” Yim Sovann said.

Minister of Information and CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith also said his party would be willing to consider coalition partners, saying: “We plan to rule in coalition with other parties when we win, but only if they want to join us. We really need the human resources of a coalition, because it is very difficult to develop the country when ruling alone.”

A number of civil society groups, meanwhile, were continuing to raise questions about whether the upcoming elections could be considered free and fair given the overwhelming media dominance of the CPP, accusations of intimidation and the allegedly politically motivated killing this month of Moneaksekar Khmer journalist Khim Sambo.

The US Embassy has also condemned the “chilling effect on the media” of acts such as Khim Sambo’s killing, which “risks undermining citizens’ confidence in their ability to fully participate in the electoral process in safety.”

“Political violence, particularly against non-ruling party activists at both the national and the local level, has threatened the freedom to fully participate in the upcoming elections,” said the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee.
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Thai-Cambodia border row exposes ASEAN's Achilles heel

By John Grafilo

Singapore - The failure of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to settle an escalating border row between two of its members has sorely exposed the bloc's weakness in resolving disputes within the organization.

Fresh from its successful work in spearheading an international humanitarian mission into cyclone-devastated Myanmar, the 10-country ASEAN abdicated from mediating in the dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.

Cambodia had sought the group's help this week, but ASEAN's foreign ministers maintained that the 'bilateral process must be allowed to continue,' referring to efforts by Thailand and Cambodia to negotiate.

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said that during the just concluded ASEAN ministerial meetings in the city-state, Cambodia had proposed the creation of an ASEAN contact group that could help resolve the problem.

'The proposal found favour with a number of foreign ministers, but there was also a general view that the bilateral process should be allowed to continue, and there is still no consensus for the formation of such a group,' he said.

Diplomatic sources said Thailand rejected ASEAN's mediation and was adamant the issue has to be resolved bilaterally.

Hours after ASEAN turned down Cambodia's plea, a disappointed Phnom Penh turned to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to intervene in the dispute.

The row over the land near the roughly 1,000-year-old Preah Vihear Temple worsened this month when UNESCO approved Cambodia's application to have the complex named a World Heritage Site.

An estimated 2,000 Thai and Cambodian troops are now facing each other across the border around the temple, situated between Si Sa Khet and Preah Vihear provinces in Thailand and Cambodia, respectively, about 400 kilometres north-east of Bangkok.

While soldiers from both sides were shown on television sitting side by side and talking to each other amiably, the situation remained uneasy.

Analysts said the dispute and the subsequent failure of ASEAN to help bickering members settle their disagreements underscored the need to flesh out a dispute-settlement mechanism provided for in the newly drafted charter for the organization that consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The charter, which was approved during the 2007 leaders summit, also held in Singapore, would make the bloc a legal entity and a rules-based organization. It also provides for the creation of a human rights body and a dispute-settlement mechanism.

But a high-level panel of senior ASEAN officials was not due to present their recommendations on the subject until the leaders summit in Bangkok in December.

'Thailand and Cambodia have slapped ASEAN right in the face,' Indonesia's Jakarta Post newspaper charged.

'The military standoff between the two countries has embarrassed their neighbours, who take pride that their organization is one of the few with an effective mechanism to maintain regional peace,' the newspaper said in an editorial.

'Placing this dispute in the UNSC hands put ASEAN in an awkward position and makes it more difficult to find a regional solution,' it added.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Thai-Cambodia row underscored the need for ASEAN members to ratify the charter - Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines have yet to do so - so the organization could have a 'rules-based governing framework' to address such issues within and outside ASEAN.

'ASEAN could not sit idly by without damaging its credibility,' he said. 'As a region, it is vital that we continue to move forward on ASEAN cooperation and integration.'

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Cambodia promises Thai safety

Phnom Penh (dpa) - Cambodia imposed extra security and will make it a priority to ensure all Thais and their businesses are safe during weekend elections.

Tensions are high between the two neighbours after the border temple of Preah Vihear was listed as Cambodia's second World Heritage site earlier this month.

Thailand mobilized troops on the border into what it claims is disputed territory and Cambodia claims is sovereign soil shortly thereafter. Cambodia responded in a military standoff that has dominated the news on both sides and stirred up nationalistic fervour.

"This is a political problem, so civilians should not be involved or suffer," Kanharith said by telephone. "We have security in place and Thailand has also advised its citizens through the embassy."

Kanharith also urged Cambodians not to join a boycott of Thai-made products, saying it was counter-productive.

The boycott campaign has been spread by text messaging and anonymous advertisements in leading Khmer-language newspapers urging true Cambodian patriots to leave Thai products on the shelves.

In 2003 an angry Cambodian mob torched the Thai embassy and a number of Thai businesses over a false rumour a Thai actress had claimed Cambodia's other World Heritage site, the Angkor Wat temple complex, was Thai.

Kanharith said he was confident that would not happen again when Cambodians went to the polls in a national election Sunday.

On Thursday, the Thai embassy in Cambodia advised its nationals on evacuation strategies in case the situation worsened.

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Cambodia: UN help if border talks fail


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia will pursue U.N. intervention to avoid a military confrontation with Thailand if talks between the two countries fail to produce a breakthrough, the Cambodian foreign minister said Friday.

Cambodia is only postponing — not canceling — its request for the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency meeting on the dispute over contested land near a historic temple, Hor Namhong told reporters.

Foreign ministers from both countries are scheduled to meet Monday in the Cambodian city of Siem Reap.

"This is a new step in our goodwill to try to find a solution to the problem through peaceful negotiations," Hor Namhong said after meeting with ambassadors to Cambodia from the Security Council's five permanent members.

The session was called to inform diplomats about the Monday talks.

He said he was "quite hopeful" that the Monday meeting could resolve the standoff near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple. However, if the talks fail, "resorting to the United Nations is still more preferable than waging a war."

The comments came a day after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a statement saying he had advised the Security Council to "temporarily postpone its meeting while awaiting results of the negotiations between Cambodia and Thailand."

Military tensions between the two countries over 1.8 square miles of land intensified earlier this month after UNESCO approved a Cambodian application to have the temple designated a World Heritage Site.

Thailand sent troops to the border July 15 after anti-government demonstrators lashed out at Samak's government for supporting Cambodia's application. They claim the temple's new status will undermine Thailand's claim to land around the temple.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej spoke by telephone Thursday and agreed to schedule the meeting next week between their foreign ministers.

Political attempts earlier this week to resolve the crisis failed, prompting Cambodia to take the issue to the U.N.

Thailand opposes the involvement of the U.N. or ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which both countries are members of. Thailand's U.N. ambassador, Don Pramudwinai, has accused Cambodia of bringing the quarrel before the Security Council because "the Cambodian target is not only Preah Vihear but the entire common border."

Don said Cambodia was trying to force Thailand to accept a French colonial map's demarcation of the border.

Thailand relies on a different map drawn up later with American technical assistance, but accepts a ruling by the International Court of Justice that awarded the disputed temple to Cambodia in 1962.
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Hun Sen Likely Will Expand Majority, Power in Cambodia Election

By Daniel Ten Kate

July 25 (Bloomberg) -- Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Communist who has ruled for two decades, probably will expand his parliamentary majority and grip on power July 27 after boosting prosperity by welcoming foreign investment.

The second-smallest economy among 10 Southeast Asian countries has averaged 10.6 percent growth during the past five years. Money has poured into Cambodia, as an overheating economy in Vietnam and political turmoil in Thailand triggered stock declines in those countries.

The economic expansion has increased the popularity of Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party, allowing it to weather a surge in fuel and food prices. Pheavy Vy, 27, said her mobile phone shop in the capital Phnom Penh is doing a brisk business and plans to vote for him.

``Hun Sen can solve the country's problems,'' she said. ``I'm sure he will find a solution to the rising prices.''

Inflation is putting a drag on growth and may eventually prompt a backlash against the prime minister's foreigner-friendly policies. The government allows outsiders to buy 99-year leases for pieces of agricultural land and encourages energy companies to bid for rights to tap oil and gas reserves discovered offshore in the Gulf of Thailand.

The International Monetary Fund forecast in June that economic growth in the country of 14 million would fall to about 7 percent this year, from 10.25 percent in 2007, and the government expects inflation to almost triple to 15 percent.

Growing Support

For now, Hun Sen, 56, is enjoying growing support as foreign investment creates jobs in the energy, agriculture, tourism and garment industries and he rewards his rural voters with new schools and paved roads.

``Average people, for economic and selfish reasons, not intimidation, will vote for the CPP,'' said Robert Broadfoot, Hong Kong-based managing director of Political and Economic Risk Consultancy Ltd.

Cambodia has started to rehabilitate its image as a corrupt beggar state with depleted human resources after the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s killed most of the educated class.

Foreign investment is on pace to double from $2.7 billion this year, according to the Cambodian Investment Board, a government agency. As the country prepares to open a stock market next year, foreign investment funds such as Leopard Capital are looking to spend about $450 million on banks, office buildings, luxury hotels and other projects.

``The word got out that this election is already a preordained conclusion, so new business is still coming in,'' said Bretton Sciaroni, a Phnom Penh-based lawyer who has advised foreign investors in Cambodia for about 15 years.

Political Evolution

In late 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to stop Khmer Rouge incursions and set up a client state with Hun Sen serving as foreign minister. He became prime minister in 1985 and helped negotiate a United Nations-brokered peace deal six years later that ended factional fighting and led to the country's first democratic election in 1993, Cambodia's first in 20 years.

In the 2003 election, Hun Sen's party won 73 of 123 parliamentary seats, or 59 percent, short of the two-thirds majority then required to form a government. In 2006, lawmakers changed the constitution to allow a party to form a government with a simple majority. Hun Sen said he expects to win 81 seats in this election.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy's eponymously named party won 24 seats in the 2003 election. He said the government is manipulating voter lists and threatening civil war if it loses, leaving many rural Cambodians afraid to vote for him.

`Time Bomb'

Sam Rainsy said resentment against foreign investors is building because the 99-year leases encourage land grabbing and speculation. Unemployment among youth is a ``time bomb,'' he added. He said Hun Sen's plan to open a local stock exchange next year would be ``ridiculous'' because the country lacks a strong judicial system.

Multinationals in Cambodia include Chevron Corp., the second- biggest U.S. oil company, BHP Billiton Ltd., the world's largest mining company, and Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd., Australia's third-biggest bank.

``We are three times bigger than what we thought we would be'' when entering Cambodia in 2004, said Stephen Higgins, chief executive officer of ANZ Royal, a joint venture with the Royal Group, a Cambodian conglomerate.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that banks now hold 20 percent of the country's money supply, up from about 10 percent five years ago, despite what Higgins called a ``noticeable'' drop in deposits at ANZ Royal in the month prior to the election. The same thing happened during the past two elections amid fears that violence might break out.

Improved Yields

The government says its policies to allow foreign-run large- scale agriculture investments will lead to improved yields. Cambodia shipped 450,000 tons of rice last year, much less than the 8.5 million tons sold by neighboring Thailand, the world's largest rice exporter.

``We cannot develop on our own,'' said government spokesman Khieu Kanharith. ``The CPP is popular because people are starting to see the economy grow. They appreciate the normalcy of life.'' He added that Cambodia also is ``reaping the benefits'' of joining the World Trade Organization in 2004.

New foreign investment will help widen Cambodia's growth, which is concentrated largely in garments and tourism. Oil and gas revenue from concessions in the Gulf of Thailand still in the exploration phase may reduce the need for foreign aid. Cambodia received $763 million last year.

Transparency International, a global non-governmental organization, ranked Cambodia 162 out of 179 countries in its 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Competition remains stifled as executives work with government officials to protect their turf, says Kang Chandararot of the Cambodia Institute of Development Studies in Phnom Penh.

``The government hasn't taken any strong role in the economy so the private sector has enjoyed full freedom,'' he said. ``This is largely because government officials are heavily involved in business.''

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Thai, Cambodian envoys set temple talks

SISAKET PROVINCE, Thailand (CNN) -- The foreign ministers of Thailand and Cambodia will meet Monday in an effort to resolve a week-long military standoff over an ancient border temple that sits on disputed land, Thailand's prime minister said Thursday.

The meeting will take place in Siem Reap, Cambodia one day after Cambodia's general election on Sunday, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej told CNN.

An eight-hour meeting between Thai and Cambodian officials ended earlier this week with both sides agreeing on only one point: that troops each country has amassed at the site of the Preah Vihear temple will not fire on each other, the Thai News Agency reported.

The site of Monday's meeting is closer to the better-known Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia.

For now, the countries are seeking regional intervention from their Southeast Asian neighbors.

Foreign ministers of the 10 countries that comprise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are meeting in Singapore this week.

Sundaravej spoke to his Cambodian counterpart, Hun Sen, on Thursday to arrange next week's high-level meeting. He said Hun agreed to stop pursuing the issue at the U.N. Security Council. Cambodia had sent a letter to the council to call attention to the standoff.

As a result, the Security Council postponed a meeting planned for next week on the tensions, the council's president, Vietnamese ambassador Le Luong Minh, said Thursday.

The dispute is over an 11th century temple to which Cambodia and Thailand both lay claim. It sits atop a cliff on Cambodian soil but has its most accessible entrance on the Thai side.

The International Court of Justice awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962. Thailand claims, however, that the 1.8 square mile (4.6 sq. km) area around it was never fully demarcated.

Thailand says the dispute arose from the fact that the Cambodian government used a map drawn during the French occupation of Cambodia -- a map that places the temple and surrounding area in Cambodian territory.

This month, the U.N. approved Cambodia's application to have the temple listed as a World Heritage Site -- places that have outstanding cultural value.

The decision reignited tensions, with some in Thailand fearing it would make it difficult for their country to lay claim to disputed land around the temple.

Opposition parties in Thailand used the issue to attack the government, which initially backed the heritage listing.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since the mid-1980s, has portrayed the U.N. recognition as a national triumph in the run-up to the general elections.

The current flare-up began July 15, when Cambodian guards briefly detained three Thais who crossed into the area. Once they were let go, the three refused to leave the territory.

Cambodia claims Thailand sent troops to retrieve the trio and gradually built up their numbers. Thailand denies that, saying its troops are deployed in Thai territory.
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