For Cambodia, it’s time to look ahead–and back
Chicago Tribune
By Rafael D. Frankel

Uncertainty and trauma are familiar to Cambodians. And with general elections this month and a tribunal for the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders coming closer to reality, the Khmer people are again facing disquieting events.

Two national events –one recalling a long past trauma, the other a cyclical torment–are crashing in on this Asian country.

On July 27, Cambodians will vote in what the government promises will be the most fair and free elections Cambodia has known.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, the former Khmer Rouge soldier who has ruled Cambodia since the Vietnamese left in the early 1980s, delivered that message personally to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell at a meeting here last month.

On the surface, prospects for such an election appear possible.

“They have done a lot to update their election process,” said a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh. “The mechanisms are all in place for credible elections.”

“They can reach international standards if they want to,” said George Folsom, president of the Washington-based International Republican Institute, which promotes democracy around the world.

But Folsom compares Cambodian democracy with that of Belarus and Zimbabwe, where dictators have done their best to squelch opposition.

“Democracy is not just about elections,” he said. “There must also be political space for an effective civil dialogue.”

And recent remarks by Hun Sen, saying there would be a civil war in Cambodia if his political party loses, are subtle intimidation, according to an election observer from Human Rights Watch.

“The people want [opposition leader] Sam Rainsy,” said student Kingvivo Kong, 20. “But the people will vote for [Hun Sen] because we are afraid of war.”

“Chronic intimidation” also is coming from village chiefs installed by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party to instill loyalty in rural areas, according to the Human Rights Watch observer.

Cambodians on edge

“Can a few more people talk about politics without getting shot? Yes,” the observer said. “But any real discourse? No.”

Most Cambodians are so nervous about being affiliated with a political party that asking whom they will vote for is a deeply personal question. Most people on the street answer, “I don’t know.”

Election observers are paying special attention to news media coverage of the campaigns that kicked off June 26.

As part of an agreement with the United Nations, one government-sponsored television station is devoting 15 minutes of its news coverage every night to balanced reporting. Cambodian reporters supervised by foreign journalists will report on the campaign in that time slot.

The amount of coverage each of the three main parties receives in the 15 minutes will be roughly equivalent to its representation in the national assembly.

But even as monitors judge whether coverage is balanced, they point out that 15 minutes of fairness is setting the bar conspicuously low.

And many election monitors are issuing comments critical of the government’s conduct in the campaign, putting the government on the defensive.

“We will whistle even stronger this time around if the process and results are not legitimate,” said Marco Perduca, an election monitor from the Transnational Radical Party based in Europe and the United States.

The campaign is being framed very differently by the competing parties. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party is emphasizing the nation’s improved roads, new schools and hospitals under Hun Sen.

The Funcinpec Party, headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, is campaigning on weeding out Vietnamese influence in Cambodia. The Sam Rainsy Party is campaigning against corruption in the government and calls itself the party of the working people.

One issue–so far untouched–is how to proceed with the Khmer Rouge tribunal. People’s positions on this highly emotional topic are largely defined not by party affiliation but by generation.

Cambodia and the UN signed an agreement in early June to set up a tribunal that would bring aging Khmer Rouge leaders to the stand.

Modern-day Phnom Penh has changed dramatically since it was systematically emptied in 1975 after Khmer Rouge forces took control and banished the population to the countryside, condemning 1.7 million people to deathby execution, starvation, exhaustion and torture.

To those who never knew the nightmare of the Pol Pot years, putting a few old men on trial is not a pressing matter. But to the generation for which the killing fields were a gruesome reality, such a thing is never too far in the past for justice to be denied.

“For people of my son’s generation, you come here and you witness an atrocity of history,” Mong You said at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison where members of the Cambodian elite were interrogated and tortured before being driven to fields outside of town for execution by bludgeoning.

Horrors still fresh

“But for people of my generation, it feels like only yesterday and the horror is still so fresh.”

Mong said “hundreds” of members of his extended family were killed by the Khmer Rouge and that putting the leaders on trial is necessary so they finally can be held accountable for their “genocide.” Such trials also would “help history not repeat itself,” he said.

More than a desire to see the perpetrators of genocide punished, Cambodians long for a day when they can look upon their justice system as fair, said Youk Chhang, director of a program that documents Khmer Rouge atrocities. In that way, the tribunal is an important election issue, he said.

“How can you grow a democracy without justice?” Youk asked.

“Only once the trial is over, and the verdict is returned, people will speak more freely. And then we will be on our way.”

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