Freedom in the World 2004


Cambodia's ruling party was forced to form a coalition government with two smaller parties after failing to win the two-thirds majority of seats in the July 2003 parliamentary elections needed by law to form a government on its own. The election campaign was marred by unequal media access and accusations of voter intimidation. Despite gains by his political rivals, autocratic Prime Minister Hun Sen, 51, seems poised to continue his dominance over this impoverished Southeast Asian nation for the foreseeable future.

After winning independence from France in 1953, Cambodia was ruled by King Norodom Sihanouk in the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime in the early 1970s, and the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge, which seized Phnom Penh in 1975 after several years of fighting. Under the Maoist Khmer Rouge, at least 1.7 million of Cambodia's 7 million people died by disease, overwork, starvation, or execution. In 1979, neighboring Vietnam toppled the Khmer Rouge and installed a Communist regime.

Civil strife continued in the 1980s, as the Hanoi-backed government fought the allied armies of Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and a former premier, Son Sann. Hun Sen, a onetime Khmer Rouge cadre, emerged as the regime's strongman in the early 1980s. An internationally brokered pact in 1991 formally ended the conflict and put Cambodia on the path to multiparty elections, although the Khmer Rouge continued to wage a low-grade insurgency from the jungle.

Cambodia's first free parliamentary elections, in 1993, were won by a royalist party, known as Funcinpec after its French acronym. Its leader, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a son of Sihanouk's, apparently capitalized on nostalgia among many voters for the stability that Cambodia enjoyed under the monarchy in the 1960s. Following the vote, Hun Sen used his control over the security forces to coerce Funcinpec into sharing power with his Cambodian People's Party (CPP).

Backed by Cambodia's army and police, Hun Sen harassed and intimidated Funcinpec members, opposition groups, and the press in the mid-1990s before ousting Ranariddh in a bloody coup in 1997. Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge disintegrated in the late 1990s, bringing peace to Cambodia for the first time since the 1960s and ending the last real armed threat to the government. The coup and Khmer Rouge implosion marked a turning point in recent Cambodian history, establishing Hun Sen as the country's undisputed leader.

During the campaign for the July 27, 2003, parliamentary elections, opposition candidates were able to hold dozens of rallies. But observers including the New York-based Human Rights Watch and Washington-based International Republican Institute criticized restrictions on opposition access to radio and television and blamed local officials for intimidating voters and activists in the countryside. Final results gave the ruling CPP 73 seats, Funcinpec 26, and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) 24.

The parties failed to reach their coalition agreement until November, a delay that threatened to worsen the donor fatigue felt by many of Cambodia's foreign patrons. When the IMF released a $12 million loan in February, it mixed tepid praise for the government's reform program with a call for further legal, judicial, and administrative reforms and a thinly veiled plea to curb corruption. Cambodia depends on foreign aid for more than half of its annual government budget.

Cambodia's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2003 may boost foreign investment, but lower tariffs under the global trading system will likely bring in cheap agricultural imports that may erode the livelihoods of some impoverished Cambodian farmers. Moreover, Cambodia's garment industry, which accounted for 23 percent of exports in 2002, could collapse when U.S. quotas expire in 2005.

After six years of haggling, Phnom Penh and the United Nations signed a deal in May to create an internationally backed tribunal for former Khmer Rouge leaders. Many observers complained that the tribunal will have a majority of Cambodian judges, who are widely believed to lack independence.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Cambodia's 2003 parliamentary elections were marred by restrictions on opposition access to radio and television and allegations of intimidation of voters and activists in the countryside. Local officials, most of whom are CPP members, threatened opposition supporters with violence, expulsion from villages, and denial of rice rations and other goods, Human Rights Watch reported in July. The watchdog group said that Funcinpec and the SRP also violated election laws, though less seriously.

The 2003 vote followed local elections the previous year in which some 31 mainly opposition activists were killed under suspicious circumstances prior to or following the vote, according to UN workers. Courts convicted suspects in some of the killings.

Prime Minister Hun Sen faces few democratic checks on his power. The National Assembly is becoming a forum for policy debate, but its members generally do not vigorously scrutinize government actions.

Moreover, although Cambodia's human rights record has improved in some areas, the rule of law is weak and impunity the norm. Police and soldiers are "able to impose their will on the civilian population and commit violations, safe in the knowledge that they will never be called to account for their actions," the human rights group Amnesty International said in a blistering June report.

Radio and television journalists reportedly practice self-censorship, and broadcast news coverage favors the CPP, observers say. Authorities have denied repeated requests from opposition politician Sam Rainsy for a radio station license. Meanwhile, an editor with a pro-Funcinpec radio station in Phnom Penh, Chuor Chetharith, was killed by unknown assailants in October. Cambodia's print journalists are freer than their broadcast counterparts. They routinely criticize government policies and senior officials, including Hun Sen. Authorities, however, recently have used the country's press law to suspend several newspapers for 30-day periods for criticizing the government or monarchy. Moreover, the government in January detained a newspaper editor, and the owner of Cambodia's sole independent radio station, on charges of inciting anti-Thai riots that rocked Phnom Penh by allegedly publishing or broadcasting unchecked rumors.

Religious freedom is generally respected in this predominantly Buddhist society.

Workers, students, political activists, and others held numerous protests throughout the year with little interference, although police or pro-government thugs recently have broken up some demonstrations. Cambodia's 40-odd nongovernmental human rights groups investigate and publicize abuses and carry out training and other activities. However, Amnesty International in January warned of a "continuing pattern of harassment and intimidation towards human rights defenders" in Cambodia.

Cambodia's few independent trade unions are active, but they are small, have limited resources and experience, and generally have little clout in negotiating with management. Factory workers frequently stage strikes in Phnom Penh to protest low wages, forced overtime, and poor and dangerous working conditions. Credible reports suggest that union leaders face dismissal and other harassment at some factories, and hired thugs at times intimidate or physically attack union members and other workers, according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report for 2002, released in March 2003. With some 80 percent of Cambodians relying on subsistence farming, union membership is estimated at less than 1 percent of the workforce.

Cambodia's judiciary is not independent and is marred by inefficiency and corruption. These problems reflect in part the court system's limited resources, severe shortage of lawyers, and poorly trained and underpaid judges. Security forces and local officials at times illegally detain suspects, while suspects who are charged generally spend lengthy periods in detention before their trials, according to local human rights groups and the U.S. State Department report. Police also routinely conduct searches without warrants.

Investigators often torture criminal suspects to extract confessions, and defendants frequently lack lawyers and must bribe judges to gain favorable verdicts. At the same time, delays or corruption allow many suspects to escape prosecution, leading to impunity for some government officials and members of their families who commit crimes. Despite recent reforms, Cambodian jails remain dangerously overcrowded, and inmates often lack sufficient food, water, and health care, human rights groups say.

Amnesty International and other rights groups criticized the investigations and trials in 2001 and 2002 of more than 90 men convicted for their roles in a November 2000 attack on government buildings in Phnom Penh. A California-based antigovernment group, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed at least eight people.

In a further sign that the rule of law is fragile in Cambodia, police, soldiers, and government officials are widely believed to often tolerate, or even take part in, gunrunning, drug trafficking, prostitution rings, and money laundering. Diplomats, businessmen, and aid workers say that corruption is widespread in government and banking.

The estimated 200,000 to 500,000 ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia face widespread discrimination. Meanwhile, the government in 2001 and 2002 forcibly returned several hundred ethnic Montagnard refugees to Vietnam.

With the courts largely unable to enforce property rights, and the land registration system a shambles, military and civilian officials have in recent years forcibly evicted several thousand families from their land, according to Cambodian human rights groups such as LICADHO. Observers say that the local committees set up to settle land disputes render inconsistent decisions, operate with limited transparency, and are undermined by conflicts of interest among committee members.

Cambodian women enjoy equal access with men to education, but they play relatively limited roles in government and business management. They also hold an outsized share of the low-paying farming, factory, and service sector jobs. Rape and domestic violence are common, human rights groups say. Trafficking of women and girls within Cambodia for prostitution reportedly continues to be widespread despite some recent prosecutions of traffickers and sporadic crackdowns on Phnom Penh brothel owners. More than 10,000 children live on the streets of the capital, and many teenagers work in small-scale farming or other informal jobs.

2004 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)