National Agenda : Cambodia Communists Make Quiet Comeback : They control ‘nearly everything, as before the (1993) election,’ complains one ousted royalist. Some fear a one-party state may be next.
In July, the Cambodian government declared that it had foiled a coup d’etat by hard-line elements of the regime. The international community, seeking stability in the oft-beleaguered Southeast Asian country, breathed a sigh of relief as the plotters were arrested or sent into exile.
But in the six months since the failed coup, the government in Phnom Penh has been transformed. Rather than reflect the strengths and personalities of the royalist party that won U.N.-supervised elections in May, 1993, it has quietly but unmistakably taken on the coloration of the former Communist party that lost the balloting.
Now many longtime observers fear that Cambodia is on its way to becoming a one-party state, betraying a legacy of democracy that a two-year operation by the United Nations was supposed to bestow.
“We won the election, but we are like the losers,” noted Ahmad Yayha, a member of Parliament for the royalist FUNCINPEC party who spent much of the last 20 years in exile in suburban Virginia. “We have been forced to act like an opposition party.”
In October, for example, Finance Minister Sam Rainsy, a leading member of FUNCINPEC whom polls suggested was Cambodia’s most popular politician after he launched a crusade against corruption, was dropped from the government by the ruling coalition.
Shortly after Rainsy’s ouster, Prince Norodom Sirivudh, the minister of foreign affairs and a half brother of King Norodom Sihanouk, resigned in protest over the reshuffle.
Defenders of the government argued that Rainsy had become too critical of his colleagues to survive in a parliamentary system. Others noted, however, that Rainsy’s attacks against corruption in the government were getting uncomfortably close to top figures in the coalition.
The former Communist party, Rainsy charged, “controls nearly everything, as before the election.”
“In most of the districts and communes, they control the police, the army and the administration,” he said. “FUNCINPEC people are very disappointed because nothing has changed. The power remains in the same hands, and all methods of repression, intimidation continue as before.”
The departure of the two ministers was just one of many signs that FUNCINPEC has been relegated to a back-bench role in the government despite its election triumph over the former Communists, whose political group is called the Cambodian People’s Party.
The United Nations spent nearly $2 billion to ensure that the elections were free and fair but made no provision to guarantee democracy after the voting. After a threat of civil war was raised, the royalist party reluctantly agreed to form a coalition with the former Communists in hopes of achieving national reconciliation. But the erstwhile Communists have never unconditionally accepted the election results.
While Prince Norodom Ranariddh, one of Sihanouk’s sons, continues to share the prime minister’s job with former Communist leader Hun Sen, many other FUNCINPEC leaders have been ignored or simply pushed aside.
For example, the FUNCINPEC governor of Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s major port, has been unable to gain access to either the governor’s office or house. The former Communist governor was made deputy governor in the new government, and he simply ignores his new boss, as does the provincial administration. The same pattern has been repeated elsewhere.
“Prince Ranariddh has lost power completely. FUNCINPEC has lost power completely. They are prisoners in their own government offices,” said Julio Jeldres, a Chilean who came to Cambodia as a close aide to Sihanouk and was until recently the head of a private, American-funded human rights organization.
One diplomat, marveling at FUNCINPEC’s alteration, said that now “it is impossible to see any daylight between Ranariddh and Hun Sen ideologically.” He predicted that the government will develop along the lines of Singapore or Malaysia, which tolerate only token opposition.
Asked recently about his relationship with Hun Sen, Ranariddh said that while there are some tensions in the coalition, “there is very good cooperation between Hun Sen and myself, and this is a big surprise for observers who had seen the unfolding of the election campaign. I must tell you that up until now it is going very well.”
Of equal concern to many in FUNCINPEC, whose members’ politics have been shaped by decades in exile in countries such as the United States and France, are the apparent efforts by the former Communists to water down the democratic freedoms guaranteed under the constitution that was drawn up soon after the elections in 1993.
The government has proposed a press law with stiff prison sentences for a long list of offenses, including “humiliation of national organs or public authority,” which journalists fear will be used as a catchall to muzzle them for criticizing the government.
“If this press law passes, it’s the beginning of the end for a free press in Cambodia,” noted Michael Hayes, an American who is editor and publisher of the Phnom Penh Post, one of the capital’s three English-language newspapers.
Even while debate on the press law was going on in Parliament, Khieu Kanarith, an official of the former Communist government and now director general in the ministry of information, closed two newspapers that had been critical of the government.
One was shut down for printing a letter from a reader who asked the two prime ministers to stop “barking,” on grounds it demeaned the leaders by implying they were dogs. There are dozens of newspapers in the capital, and many take advantage of the current freedom to take partisan stands or ridicule ministers in sometimes outlandish ways.
Although other members of his party are appalled at the proposed restrictions, Ranariddh has become one of the most outspoken critics of the news media and has thrown his weight behind adoption of the press law, virtually assuring its passage in some form.
Among other proposed changes that have alarmed democracy advocates was a proposal by the justice minister that he sit on a committee to choose judges for the country. This was seen as an attack on the independence of the judiciary, most of which was installed by the Communists before the 1993 elections.
The government has also sought to abolish a group of legal defenders, trained with U.S. government aid, because they represent a “foreign influence.” The defenders are the only legal representation for most Cambodians because the country has virtually no private lawyers.
Simultaneously with the increase in the influence of the former Communists, reports of corruption are on the increase as well. Rainsy, the former finance minister, has alleged that government revenue from timber has declined from $35 million to $3 million after the Cabinet switched control of timber concessions from the Finance Ministry to the Defense Ministry.
In one controversial deal, a Malaysian timber company won a concession to log 2 million acres of timber for only $50,000 a year.
Rainsy was widely hailed for increasing government revenue and balancing the budget, setting the Cambodian economy back on the road to recovery. His replacement in the job is Keat Chhon, an official of the former Communist government who is regarded as a cautious politician and has won tentative support from international aid donors.