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Cambodia's continuing crisis

By Verghese Mathews - posted Friday, 11 March 2005

If there is one lesson neighbours in the region should learn from contemporary Cambodia, it is to never ever end up as a donor-funded country. Should some outrageous fortune result in that happening, one should expect to see within that country a collective nationalistic fervour bent on quickly redressing the situation.

This is unfortunately not so in Phnom Penh where once again political infighting is preoccupying decision-makers instead of nation-building and working towards self-reliance.

Politicking, it would appear, is in the blood, bones, hair and finger nails of Cambodian politicians who practise it with great enthusiasm and blatant impunity.


The melodrama is at the expense of the poor, the weak and the marginalised who are becoming increasingly frustrated. Worse, there is also a tiresome pattern of the political discord in Phnom Penh invariably becoming externalised, resulting in strident condemnation of the government by the usual “democratic” sources - and, as happened not too long ago, a shrill call for a “regime change”.

The latest upping of the political ante is essentially the continuation of inter- and intra-political party intrigues that have been going on since the last general election in July 2003 - obscenely delaying for more than a year the eventual coalition government between the dominant Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and the royalist Funcinpec party (FCP).

Tension moved up several notches on February 3 when the Cambodian National Assembly voted to remove the parliamentary immunity of Mr Sam Rainsy and two other members of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) so the courts could charge them with defamation. Prime Minister Hun Sen and FCP president Prince Norodom Ranarridh, who had earlier lodged the defamation charges, argued that no parliamentarian should be allowed to malign others under cover of parliamentary immunity.

Mr Rainsy “fled” the country the same day. He had similarly fled or sought refuge at some embassy on previous occasions. He was soon in Washington, Brussels and Paris to externalise the problem. Here, he must be given credit - he has used his excellent outreach to identify powerful people and groups that are against Mr Hun Sen and the CPP.

Mr Rainsy scored on February 17 when long-time Hun Sen critic, US Senator Mitch McConnell, and Senator Sam Brownback tabled Resolution 65 at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee calling on the Cambodian National Assembly to reverse its decision to strip the three SRP members' parliamentary immunity.

It also urged donor countries to impose “appropriate sanctions” against the Cambodian Government and assembly until the decision was reversed. The resolution further demanded that US visas not be issued to any parliamentarian who had voted in favour of the decision and neither to all his family members.


For good measure, the resolution urged the State Department, the United Nations Secretary-General, international financial institutions and “democrats all around the world to continue publicly to condemn the actions of the Cambodian Assembly”.

It is interesting that international financial institutions are specifically mentioned. The SRP has been highly critical of them for releasing funds to the Cambodian Government for various development programs.

Mr Rainsy also appeared on the BBC's Hardtalk. To criticisms from his detractors that he did not fare too well and was on the defensive, the SRP retorted that the interviewer, Zeinab Badawi, was overly aggressive and “would have made an excellent interrogator at a concentration camp”!

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First published in The Straits Times, Singapore on March 5, 2005

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About the Author

Verghese Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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