Freedom in the World 2008


After nearly three years of difficulties in securing funding and cooperation from the Cambodian government, in November 2007 the special tribunal tasked with trying crimes against humanity and genocide cases dating to the Khmer Rouge period began its work. Meanwhile, government officials continued to engage in land grabs and other abuses with impunity, failing to improve social and economic conditions for the majority of the population.

Cambodia won independence from France in 1953. King Norodom Sihanouk ruled until he was ousted in 1970 by U.S.-backed military commander Lon Nol, and the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975. Between 250,000 and two million of Cambodia’s seven million people died through disease, overwork, starvation, or execution under the Khmer Rouge before Vietnamese forces toppled the regime and installed a new Communist government in 1979. Fighting continued in the 1980s between the Hanoi-backed government and the allied armies of Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and other political contenders. The 1991 Paris Peace Accords brought an end to warfare, but the Khmer Rouge waged a low-grade insurgency until its disintegration in the late 1990s.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who first entered government as part of the Vietnamese-backed regime in 1979, has long dominated Cambodian politics. His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has used its control of the National Assembly as well as the military, courts, and police to remove and outmaneuver any opposition. For example, after forming a coalition government with the royalist party, known as Funcinpec after its French acronym, in 2004, Hun Sen and the CPP turned to attack opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his eponymous party. To stop Rainsy’s criticism of government corruption and abuses, the CPP-dominated National Assembly stripped him and fellow Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) legislators of their parliamentary immunity in 2005. Rainsy was charged with defaming Hun Sen and Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and after he fled Cambodia to escape arrest, he was convicted in absentia. Another SRP legislator was convicted of fraud and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Pressure from international donors, who finance much of Cambodia’s budget, compelled Hun Sen to negotiate a settlement with Rainsy. The opposition leader received a royal pardon in exchange for recanting his allegations and issuing a public apology to Hun Sen, and he returned to Cambodia in February 2006, after a year of self-imposed exile. The CPP and SRP subsequently formed a new alliance, and Hun Sen then turned on Ranariddh and Funcinpec. He accused the prince of corruption, including financial mismanagement of major development projects and extramarital affairs (Ranariddh had on many occasions attended public functions with a woman who was not his wife). The CPP-dominated National Assembly passed an antiadultery law, and by March 2006, Ranariddh had fled Cambodia. He was charged with adultery and sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison. He was also ousted and sued by Funcinpec for allegedly embezzling $3.6 million through the sale of the party headquarters. As of the end of 2007, Ranariddh had not returned to Cambodia and had established a new party under his own name. Given the factional fighting within and among opposition groups, Hun Sen and the CPP were left with little real threat to their dominance.

Weak governance, widespread poverty, and corruption were a few of the major factors contributing to the World Bank’s designation of Cambodia as a fragile state in 2006. A UN envoy had also warned of the government’s increasing totalitarian tendencies and deteriorating human rights conditions. The National Assembly’s 2006 passage of a new law requiring military conscription for all men between 18 and 30 years of age raised international concern, as it followed years of efforts and millions of dollars to demobilize the army and remove weapons from society. The government claimed that conscription was needed for security reasons, but critics characterized the move as a crude attempt to provide employment for a rapidly growing population, including 300,000 young men who enter the targeted age bracket every year.

In 2007, a special tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, made its final preparations for trying former Khmer Rouge officials charged with genocide and other crimes against humanity. The parliament first approved the plan to establish the special tribunal in Phnom Penh with help from the United Nations in 2004. However, the project was delayed first by a lack of funds and then by the government’s refusal to accept international legal standards. The government also insisted on appointing politically loyal judges and demanded limits on the public airing of trial information. By mid-2007, all of these issues appeared to have been settled. The tribunal will have $56.3 million and three years to complete its work, and the first court hearings are expected to begin in 2008. Cases will be decided by majority vote among the five justices, three of whom are Cambodian. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment, and foreign lawyers can represent defendants. Victims must file complaints to the court as a group.

In November 2007, the special tribunal charged five former high-level Khmer Rouge leaders with war crimes or crimes against humanity, marking the first time anyone has ever faced charges for the killings and other atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. Charges were brought against head of state Khieu Samphan, foreign minister Ieng Sary, social affairs minister Ieng Thirth, second-in-command of the Khmer Rouge Nuon Chea, and chief of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison Kang Kek Ieu (or “Duch”). Khmer Rouge mastermind Pol Pot and his successor, Ta Mok, died before they could be brought to trial.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Cambodia is not an electoral democracy. The country is a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral parliament consisting of the National Assembly and the Senate. The current constitution was promulgated in 1993 by the king, who serves as head of state. The monarchy remains highly revered by the people as a symbol of national unity. Prince Norodom Sihamoni succeeded his father, King Norodom Sihanouk, in 2004 after the latter abdicated for health reasons. The new king has lived abroad for much of his life.

The government, consisting of the prime minister and a council of ministers, must be approved by a two-thirds vote in the 123-seat National Assembly. Assembly members are elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. The Senate has 61 members, of whom two are appointed by the king, two are elected by the National Assembly, and 57 are chosen by functional constituencies. Senators serve five-year terms.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP dominate national and local politics through their control of the security forces, officials at all levels of government, and the state-owned media. Other important political parties are the SRP, formerly the main opposition party and now the coalition partner of the CPP and Funcinpec. Political violence continues to threaten peace and stability in the country. In July 2005, bloody battles between supporters of Hun Sen and Ranariddh raged for three days, and several people were killed.

Corruption and abuse of power are very serious problems. Cambodia was ranked 162 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index. A World Bank report released in 2006 found that “unofficial payments” are “frequent, mostly, or always required” for business transactions. The International Monetary Fund also concluded that corruption and bureaucratic obstacles significantly hinder economic growth. Land grabs and other abuses by the political elite, top bureaucrats and the military generally go unchecked. Trees are illegally logged, mines are exploited, and commercial crops are grown to enrich the elite and their supporters, according to Global Witness, a British-based environmentalist group. Nevertheless, the international donor community pledged $690 million in assistance to Cambodia in 2007, 15 percent more than the previous year.

The government does not fully respect freedom of speech; controls are largely focused on local broadcast media, which is the primary source of information for most Cambodians. Many newspapers and private television and radio stations operate in Cambodia, including several that are owned and operated by the ruling and opposition parties, and there are no restrictions on privately owned satellite dishes receiving foreign broadcasts. Print journalists are somewhat freer to criticize government policies and senior officials and the internet is fairly free of government control. However, public access to the print media is limited to about 10 percent of the population while internet access is largely limited to those who reside in urban centers. Mobile telephones have gained widespread use, especially among urban populations. There were over 1.5 million subscribers as of March 2007 and subscription rates are growing at 35 percent per year.

The majority of Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists who can generally practice their faith freely, but discrimination against ethnic Cham Muslims is widespread. The government generally respects academic freedom, although criticism of the state is not well tolerated.

Freedoms of association and assembly are respected by the government to a certain degree because of pressure and scrutiny by international donors. Many civil society groups work on a broad spectrum of issues and offer social services, frequently with funding from overseas donors. Public gatherings, protests, and marches occur and are rarely violent, although the government occasionally uses uniformed police and others to intimidate participants.

Cambodia has a small number of independent unions. Workers have the right to strike, and many have done so to protest low wages and poor or dangerous working conditions. However, lack of resources and experience limit union success in collective bargaining. Union leaders have reported harassment and physical threats.

The judiciary is not independent and is marred by inefficiency and corruption. There is a severe shortage of lawyers, and judges are poorly trained, underpaid, and frequently linked to the CPP. Lower courts in particular do not meet basic international standards. Abuse by law enforcement officers, including illegal detention and the torture of suspects, is common. Delays in the judicial process and corruption allow many suspects to escape prosecution. Jails are seriously overcrowded, and inmates often lack sufficient food, water, and health care. Police, soldiers, and government officials are widely believed to tolerate, or to be involved in, the trafficking of guns, drugs, and humans, as well as other crimes.

Discrimination against ethnic Cham Muslims is common. The Chams have come under new suspicion from the Khmer majority in the wake of Islamist terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Extreme poverty and a lack of government assistance have compelled many to seek help from overseas donors. People of Vietnamese descent also face various forms of discrimination and harassment by the state and society.

The constitution guarantees the right to freedom of travel and movement. The government generally respects this right, but there have been reports of authorities restricting travel for opposition politicians, particularly during election campaigns. Although the economy continues to grow, widespread corruption means that wealth is increasingly concentrated in a small cadre of the ruling elite.

Women suffer widespread economic and social discrimination. Rape and domestic violence are common, and women and girls are trafficked inside and outside of Cambodia for the purpose of prostitution. The sex trade has fueled the spread of HIV/AIDS. In 2007, the government began drafting a law against human trafficking. Also, international pressure and funding motivated the government to form a national task force that will bring together government ministers, law enforcement agencies, and international bodies to address the problem.

2008 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)