PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — On a recent trip to a village along the banks of the Mekong River, Kem Sokha brought along not only his trusted bodyguard but also a private American security specialist.
Kem Sokha is not a politician, a big businessman, or a diplomat, but a leader in Cambodia’s fledgling human rights movement. And he believes his life is in danger.
The recent brazen killings of a prominent labor organizer, Chea Vichea, and several others affiliated with an opposition political group have heightened the sense of lawlessness in Cambodia, where murder is seen as a common political tool – and the rich and powerful seem above the law.
The nation’s police, judiciary, and elections institutions are controlled by the ruling party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, and many Cambodians and foreign aid workers have little confidence that justice can be served.
“I fear the killing fields in Cambodia are still open,” said Kem Sokha, president of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, referring to the place the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime would kill its victims of torture from 1975 to 1979.
Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge member who deserted the regime and joined the resistance, has maintained his grip on power in one form or another for nearly two decades through collaboration with Vietnam, military coups, and elections deemed by international observers as lacking “free and fair” standards.
The most recent elections, in July, saw the ruling Cambodian People’s Party win a majority of seats in Parliament, but not the two-thirds required to form a government. Since then, a tense political drama has heated up between the CPP and the Democratic Alliance, made up of two opposition parties. Although both sides talk of reaching a settlement soon, the stalemate persists.
The government crisis has coincided with a wave of high-profile murders the past few months.
Chea Vichea, 36, who was affiliated with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, was killed Jan. 22 in broad daylight in a driveby shooting in Phnom Penh. A radio journalist, a famous actress, and her mother – all associated with the Democratic Alliance – were gunned down in a similar fashion.
Human rights workers and opposition leaders have seized on what they called a questionable investigation into Chea Vichea’s killing, saying it shows the history of impunity that has plagued Cambodia for decades is still prevalent. Two suspects are being held; one accused police of beating him to force a confession.
Accusations have been leveled by the opposition and democracy organizations that the killings were intended as a warning to opposition leaders to join the prime minister in a government.
A ruling-party spokesman, Khieu Kanharith, rejected any idea that the killings were ordered by members of his party. , saying the allegations were political ploys. “If we wanted to use violence, why wouldn’t we have hit someone higher up in the party?” he said.
But outside of the government, the killings have raised alarms.
“They certainly appear to be politically motivated,” said Jackson Cox, the Cambodia director of the International Republican Institute, an American organization that promotes democracy around the world. “The political situation here is tense, and members of the opposition, both high and low, are being murdered.”
The recent killings have foreign relief workers and many Cambodian wondering whether Cambodia’s development as a democracy has foundered after making great strides since the United Nations launched a $2 billion relief effort in 1992.
The government points out that Cambodia was rebuilding from total disaster. While many problems remain, the political situation is much less violent than in the past, Khieu Kanharith said.
The opposition rejects such reasoning. “It’s not a bloody step forward when we go from 1 million dead to 200,” said Sam Ung Bung-Ang, a spokesman for the Democratic Alliance. “Life is life, and one murder is too many.”
Development statistics paint a picture of slow progress. A 2003 UN report said Cambodia is still ranked 130 of 173 countries on the Human Development Index. Other than Laos, Cambodia has the lowest life expectancy and literacy rates in the region, and the highest mortality rates for mothers and young children.
“With the economy now, state assets are war spoils, and what we call ‘corruption’ . . . is simply [the government] running the country like a family business,” said Sam Rainsy, the main opposition party leader. “If we continue like that, we will go down the drain.”
Asked about the pace of Cambodia’s development and human rights record under the current government, the government spokesman said more time and money were needed. (Cambodia receives about $500 million annually from foreign donors.) He also said Cambodia was being held to a higher standard of democracy than its neighbors.
“We don’t have enough human resources,” Khieu Kanharith said. “We’ve had a lot of assistance from donor countries. If you want to blame someone, blame them.”
Many are now looking for the international community to increase the pressure on the government. Although some US senators have criticized the government, reaction from most foreign governments and development institutions, many of whom provide the funding for Cambodia to function, has been muted.
“Where is the outrage?” asked Cox, from the International Republican Institute.
Meanwhile, the political stalemate had delayed the convening of the long-awaited Khmer Rouge war-crimes tribunal. Government and opposition politicians say the tribunal would go forward once a government was formed.Top