Decades of internal conflict and brutality in Cambodia culminated in the deaths of some two million people in the late 1970s, and the destruction of its social fabric during the reign of terror wrought by the Khmer Rouge.
Since then, continuing poverty, widespread corruption, systemic injustice, and human rights violations have perpetuated a climate fear and despair. The signing of Paris Peace Agreements (PPA) in 1991 marked both an end and a new beginning: an end to the civil and interstate wars and the Killing Fields and the beginning of an era of national reconciliation, peace building and development. Most importantly, the PPA brought democracy to Cambodia and enabled the first post-conflict national election to be held in May 1993. However, although the Royalist National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) party, led by Prince Norodom Ranarridh, officially won the election, Hun Sen, who had ruled the country through the 1980s, refused to cede power. A power-sharing arrangement was consequently arranged with both leaders as co-prime ministers.
On Sunday, Cambodians will go to the polls for the sixth time since 1993. The country remains at peace and has enjoyed strong and consistent economic growth, with GDP growth over the last two decades averaging over 7 per cent and ranking it as the sixth fastest growing economy in the world and the top performer in Asean. Nevertheless, the country has failed to deliver tangible benefits to many ordinary citizens. Widespread economic inequality persists throughout the country. Many Cambodians are still struggling for food, shelter, health and education.
The country has also seen a dramatic escalation in intimidation and arbitrary arrests facilitated by a politicised judiciary and a rubber stamp legislature. Cambodian democracy has remained a facade.
The fifth national election in 2013 and the commune elections in 2017 saw large gains by the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). Until this time, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had enjoyed a virtual monopoly on power, but this marked a turning point. The leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, was subsequently imprisoned and 118 senior party members were forbidden to engage in political activities for five years. The press and civil society across the country came under attack, lawmakers were subjected to violence, and several prominent activists were assassinated. These attacks marked “the death of democracy” according to Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights and “turned the country into a de facto one-party state”. After systematically silencing all critics, even the semblance state of pluralistic democracy no longer exists since the state has consistently failed to protect its own people from major human rights violations. More than ever, it is clear that whatever once existed as Cambodian democracy has crumbled and human security has collapsed. Only the Cambodian people can ultimately determine the long-term viability of the current regime to bring full democracy, lasting peace and prosperity for all.
Today, the country stands at a crossroads. Its future depends on the credibility of Sunday’s election as free and fair. The survival of Cambodian democracy requires more than the government winning a majority in the ballot box. It requires the rule of law, good governance, freedom of speech and independence for the judiciary, the media and academics.
With the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and the elections of 1993, I imagined a free and democratic Cambodia, prospering and at peace with the world and itself. Over the past decade I have been compelled to review that vision.
I imagine a Cambodia where no one who commits corruption or crime can be untouchable as they have been for the past 33 years. I am afraid that Cambodia is once again becoming politically, economically, and militarily dependent on Beijing (as it did once before from 1975-1979). The past does not have to be repeated.
I imagine a country in which the midnight raid and arrest without warrant or legal process of CNRP leader Kem Sokha would be unthinkable.
I imagine a country that would listen to the voices of the more than three millions people who voted for the CNRP instead of silencing them in order to maintain order for the privileged few to enjoy. I imagine a country in which the killing of four garment workers and the shooting of 29 others in a protest at the Canada Industrial Complex in Phnom Penh on the morning of January 2014 could never have happened.
I imagine a country in which the gunning down in 2016 of political analyst Kem Ley by a former soldier at a gas station in Phnom Penh after he had criticised the ruling party would be unimaginable.
I am deeply saddened by the fact that opposition officials MPs Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Sophea were beaten in 2015 by the three members of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit who were subsequently promoted.
I am stunned by the 30-month sentence imposed last year by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on the mother and prominent land activist from Boeung Kak, Tep Vanny, who “has done nothing but peacefully stand up for her community”, according to Amnesty
International. At time of writing, she has spent over 700 days in arbitrary detention. I am disturbed by the way the CNRP, as the only realistic threat to the regime’s monopoly on power, was forcibly dissolved last year.
I am distressed by the way Cambodia is becoming a one-party military state with almost 800 active duty generals and some 300 Royal Cambodian Armed Forces officers being promoted this year alone.
I am appalled by the way that Cambodians are sacrificing their lives in their fight for their rights and are subjected to intimidation by the government whenever they challenge its interests.
I long to see my country become one in which Cambodians can enjoy fundamental freedoms, such as the right to peaceful assembly, association and expression.
I envision a Cambodia where the courts of justice are no longer politically controlled and used against regime critics.
Democracy in Cambodia is dying. Yet, I hold onto my vision of my homeland as a country that will one day be willing to learn from past mistakes. I imagine how my own young son would experience the world should he, like today’s elite in Cambodia, be surrounded by armed guards and his every whim indulged by wealthy benefactors. Like them, he too would learn that he could take whatever he desired without consideration for others or for the consequences. What sort of society does this create? Instead, I long for a Cambodia whose leaders show humility, a willingness to accept criticism and an interest in responding to the will of the people.
The results of Sunday’s general election are perhaps predictable. But a just and lasting peace for all Cambodians is possible. The current leadership can create democratic conditions and answer to the hopes and dreams of the people. Oppression of those who disagree with the current political agenda is not the way to bring about sustainable peace and development. Preah Moha Ghosananda, the Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia (1988-2007), also known as “The Buddha of the Battlefield”, reminds us all that “The suffering of Cambodia has been deep. From this suffering comes great compassion. It is a law of the universe that retaliation, hatred and revenge only continue the cycle and never stop.”
May all Cambodians see what really is happening to our country. May all Cambodians be able to live free from fear and want and be free to live in dignity.