PHNOM PENH — They fought with guns and bombast during a civil war, a U.N. peacekeeping mission, an election, a coup, another election — and every free moment in between. For most of the past two years, the followers of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh have cooperated in a coalition government, giving Cambodians a taste of peace for the first time in three decades. But the road ahead is full of danger.
First, skeptics say this “political stability” is based on little more than the fact that Hun Sen finally has dominated Ranariddh, now the National Assembly president, and they currently find it expedient not to quarrel. “Stability these days is very fragile because of the absence of rule of law,” said Lao Mong Hay, head of The Khmer Institute of Democracy. “Anything can happen overnight.”
Last month’s bloody attack on government buildings in Phnom Penh may have been an isolated event, but it demonstrated that anything can happen. A group of Cambodian exiles based in the United States said it organized the raid to block a visit by the president of Vietnam, whom it calls Hun Sen’s patron. But Hun Sen’s government is so distrusted by Cambodians that many suspected that the government itself orchestrated the attack to create a pretext to suppress its critics.
The impunity of the authorities has made many Cambodians feel that the government exists to exploit, not help or lead them. Judicial and law enforcement authorities are brutal, corrupt and influenced by higher-ups. An investigation by the Cambodian human-rights groups ADHOC and LICADHO found that members of the police, military and other authorities killed at least 263 people in a 22-month period of 1997 and 1998. In none of the cases was anyone brought to justice. In half the cases, local authorities did not take any action at all.
The tensions between the government and the people, between the increasingly wealthy minority and the increasingly poor majority, and between city and countryside, have been worsening because the state has not improved living conditions despite more than $3 billion in foreign aid since 1991 — for a country of only 11 million people. During peacetime, Cambodia’s rulers spend 40 percent of the national budget on defense and security, and little on health and education, international aid officials say. This year, the World Health Organization ranked Cambodia 174 out of 191 countries for health-care delivery, the worst in Asia except for that perennial pariah, military-ruled Myanmar.
Increasingly, people are venting their anger at economic inequality and exploitation. Public demonstrations, rare in Cambodia only a few years ago, are now common. The demonstrators include opposition-party activists, students, teachers, taxi drivers, textile factory workers and landless farmers. In Cambodia, every demonstration carries the danger of violent suppression by security forces.
The land issue is potentially the most explosive. Eighty percent of Cambodians live in rural areas, with farming their main livelihood. A recent study by the international relief agency Oxfam found that 13 percent of rural families are landless; 15 years ago, less than 3 percent were landless. Many of these families once had land, but were forced by poverty to sell it or had it seized from them without compensation. Usually the land-grabbers are military or provincial government officials, who resell the land to developers and illegal loggers. “For the first time in Cambodian history, access to land is becoming difficult,” an Oxfam researcher wrote. “Not only is the percentage of poor and landless increasing, but so are social problems and the potential for civil unrest.”
Many people also are worried about the possibility of conflict as the country prepares for nationwide commune elections and for a trial of the Khmer Rouge. No timetable has been set for either event.
Cambodia’s 1,600-plus communes are the most basic local government structures. All the commune chiefs were chosen by Hun Sen’s party, some as far back as the 1980s. The elections will be their first real challenge, and they may use violence to retain their sinecures. Ranariddh’s party long has demanded its share of the communes. But critics say the draft electoral and commune administration laws, and the National Election Commission, heavily favor Hun Sen’s party. The period around the general election in 1998 was marked by murders, intimidation and accusations of fraud by Hun Sen’s party. People who took to the streets to protest the results were bloodily suppressed.
The government and the United Nations have agreed on a formula for a joint tribunal of those responsible for the Khmer Rouge massacres of the 1970s. In the long term, the trial may promote healing and reconciliation. But in the short term, it could revive angst and antagonisms in society — almost everyone lost a relative during Khmer Rouge rule and many of the killers live freely in villages across the country. Also, the current government and military include top officials who had defected from the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s during Khmer rule, and in the 1990s, when the group fought the government as a guerrilla force. The wider the net cast by tribunal prosecutors, the greater may be the threat to state stability. Hun Sen recently said civil unrest could result if the tribunal targeted Ieng Sary, a guerrilla leader who defected to the Hun Sen side in 1996 with thousands of followers.
Other tensions will arise if the government, under pressure from donor countries and international lending institutions, gets serious about reforms.
The government has pledged to halt illegal logging, revamp revenue collection, trim the civil service and the military, reform the judiciary, and promote good governance. The first stages of the reforms may be relatively painless. But later stages will cut into the power and perks of the authorities and could provoke a backlash. The civil service and the military have been long-standing power bases of Hun Sen’s party. Problems already have arisen with a pilot project on demobilization. Many of the former soldiers have had problems supporting themselves in civilian life, raising fears that they may turn to banditry.
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