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Anti-corruption measures eclipse human rights in Cambodia

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Anti-corruption measures eclipse human rights in CambodiaEight foreign protesters were arrested in Phnom Penh at the opening of the annual Cambodian Development Co-operation Forum (CDCF). International donors and the government discussed the development of the impoverished South East Asian Kingdom at the forum, set performance benchmarks, and pledged aid for the coming year.

Protesting against what many rights groups consider the wrongful conviction of two men for the 2004 murder of union leader Chea Vichea, the demonstration and subsequent detention spotlighted two major issues on the forum’s agenda: the notoriously corrupt political judiciary and an institutionalised practice of intimidation and at times lethal force.

Cambodia still ranks as one of the world’s poorest nations. Despite three years of double-digit economic growth, poverty reduction remains sluggish and the gulf between a wealthy urban elite and a destitute rural population is rising rapidly.

Since 1993 half the Cambodian government’s budget has been underwritten by foreign aid — now amounting to billions of dollars — and the CDCF is meant to be the arena where the government is held accountable and donor leverage is used to expedite reform.

In previous meetings the government has regularly failed to meet its agreed benchmarks and this year was no exception. Last year, donors pledged US$601 million — with Australia the third largest donor — and identified three essential areas for improvement: the passing of an anti-corruption law, the enactment of comprehensive judicial reform, and a commitment to natural resource management.

A year on and the anti-corruption law — which donors have demanded since 2002 — is languishing in the corridors of power; reform of the judiciary is proceeding at glacial pace, while the government’s management of natural resources has been lambasted from all sides.

As the protestors were detained by military police, Prime Minister Hun Sen boasted of his government’s achievements and furrowed his brow at the challenges the country still faced: rapidly rising inequality and the abject failure of development in the rural sector. These were obstacles that could be ameliorated, he said, by more donor money.

Anti-corruption measures eclipse human rights in CambodiaHun Sen has been the autocratic ruler of Cambodia for more than 20 years. And despite a decade-long string of broken promises, donors have continued to front up for his regime.

Although corruption is deeply institutionalised in Cambodia and widely regarded as accepted practice, the Prime Minister played down the failure to pass the anti-corruption law.

Illegal land evictions and increasing land concentration were also on the agenda and Hun Sen talked about his self-declared "war on land grabbing" that has involved little more than cancelling some large-scale land concessions which are then promptly handed over to other members of the wealthy elite.

The process of allocating land concessions is shrouded in secrecy and has led to massive land consolidation in the Kingdom, with 70 per cent of the country now owned by the richest 20 per cent.
A 2006 UN report described this "as a major shift towards inequality, and one seldom observed in peace time anywhere in the world."

The policy is supported by the argument that large-scale plantations are more productive than small family-sized farms — contrary to evidence in Vietnam and Thailand where vibrant rural economies are founded on small-to-medium farms — but to date only about 72,000 hectares of the 800,000 hectares given over to concessions are in production.

Most concessions are simply denuded of their forests then left idle as speculative investments — creating a peculiar paradox of large tracts of uncultivated land in the countryside that are inaccessible to an increasingly landless rural poor.

Prior to the forum, a report by UK-based environmental watchdog Global Witness documented how the government's policy of land concessions had led to rampant illegal deforestation and implicated high-ranking government officials in the crimes. 

The government described the detailed investigative report as "unacceptable rubbish" and promptly banned it, while Hun Neng, a provincial governor and Hun Sen’s brother, said if Global Witness came to Cambodia he would "hit them until their heads are broken".

A similarly damming report by Yash Ghai, the UN’s Human Rights envoy, was also refuted as ill-informed and inaccurate. Ghai’s report stated that the abuse of human rights was a tool of governance in the Kingdom and little had changed over the past decade: namely, the judiciary is still used as an arm of political power; impunity is still exercised in favour of the elite; corruption remains widespread; there are continued restrictions on the freedom of speech, and nothing has been done to protect the collective rights of the indigenous peoples to land.

Hun Sen’s response was to shun the UN representative, describing the quietly spoken Kenyan lawyer as "lazy" and "deranged" and likening him to a "barking dog".

But despite the broken promises and the barrage of criticism leading up to the forum, the donors once again came to Hun Sen’s party, coughing up a grand total US$690 million — with Australia contributing AUS$54 million.

The message seems clear: the economic growth and the stability that Hun Sen’s rule has engendered are more valuable in the current international climate than transparency, the rule of law, and human rights.

Now with revenue from Cambodia’s off-shore oil reserves set to fill the government’s coffers — possibly as early as next year — the opportunity for real donor pressure and true reform may have passed.



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I am embarrassed by the look on the waiter's face as he cleared our plates with uneaten food left on them.
I remember our concern being approached by a policeman at the Bayon: we needn't have been fearful, all he wanted was to sell us his badge.

Margaret McDonald | 28 June 2007  

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