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Fifteen years after signing the Paris peace accord that ended its civil war, Cambodia has emerged as a full-fledged member of the international community. It joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1999 and the World Trade Organization in 2004.

The Cambodian economy, seriously damaged by the 20-year-long war, is showing signs of recovery. The nation’s economic growth rate hit 10 percent in 2004 and 13.4 percent in 2005, although per capita GDP remains below $500.

Yet, Cambodia is plagued by serious human-rights problems. That became clear from presentations by Japanese and Cambodian participants at a recent symposium held in Tokyo by the People’s Forum on Cambodia (“Reviewing 15 Years After the Paris Peace Agreement”).

Cambodia held general elections in 1993, 1998 and 2003. Many countries supported the elections as a symbol of the nation’s democratic process, sending election monitors and providing financial aid. But the country’s democratization has failed to make much progress.

Thun Saray, chief of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, told the gathering the elections have not been enough to promote democratization. He said the nation, lacking a system of checks and balances, has turned into a single-party dictatorship. Freedom of the press has improved, but the freedom of assembly is still restricted and demonstrations are often banned, Saray said.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has steadily increased its parliamentary strength in elections, taking advantage of its effective control of national land and regional and administrative systems since the war years. It now has 73 seats, more than half of the all seats. FUNCINPEC, which emerged as the dominant party in the first election, has fallen to second place with 26 seats.

Last March, the Cambodian Constitution was revised to require mere majority approval in a parliamentary confidence vote on the establishment of a new government, instead of two-thirds. At about the same time, the CPP came to monopolize the interior and defense ministry posts, which it had held jointly with FUNCINPEC in a coalition government. As a result, the CPP strengthened its grip on the judiciary, military and police and is likely to accelerate moves toward de facto single-party rule.

Saray stressed that the independence of the judiciary system was crucial to the nation. The nation’s legal system, including the civil code and civil procedure law, has been improved and the training of legal officials has made some progress with Japanese aid.

Yoichi Yamada, lawyer and former judicial consultant with the United Nations Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed strong doubts about the Cambodian government’s claim that elections have been held in a free and fair manner, by pointing out that many opponents of the government have been killed. He added that elections have been marred by irregularities such as campaigning before the official start of the campaign period.

Yamada said no arrests have been made in connection with two major cases of violence that caused a large number of casualties: A March 1995 grenade attack on a gathering of the opposition Sam Ramsey Party and a July 1997 clash between military personnel loyal to the CCP and those loyal to FUNCINPEC. Similar incidents reportedly occurred in connection with the 2002 local elections and 2003 general elections.

Neither Saray nor Yamada accused the CCP of involvement in the two cases, but there is little doubt that the party was responsible since it controls police and other government organizations.

In 1993 and 1998, I joined monitoring groups for the Cambodian general elections sent by the Japanese Foreign Ministry. I had serious doubts about the 1998 election. At that time, a local representative of a private Cambodian election monitoring group told me that the CCP was buying votes with offers of chemical seasonings and pharmaceuticals, and 5,000 riel each to participants at pro-CCP rallies. A FUNCINPEC poll watcher said a police officer threatened him if he voted for the party.

The fact that a polling station I helped monitor was a high school named after Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife raised some questions in my mind. However, the international monitoring group neglected these and other problems in issuing a statement concluding that the general election was held in a free and fair manner. Japan and ASEAN member nations led the group in issuing the report; the United States, skeptical about election process, did not join. Hearing presentations at the symposium reminded me of my experiences.

Senior Foreign Ministry officials of Japan and Cambodia who spoke in the symposium avoided comment on the dark side of Cambodian politics that representatives mentioned. Masaharu Kono, deputy vice minister for foreign policy, disclosed that Hun Sen had told him that he was unhappy with his golf drives since gaining weight. Such a comment would tend to rile, at the very least, the 35 percent of Cambodians living below the poverty line.

Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, secretary of state, ministry of foreign affairs and international cooperation, said Cambodia has built an open society and is pushing a five-year program to cut poverty. The comment sounded hollow.

Later I met with a Japanese Foreign Ministry official in charge of Cambodian affairs and expressed doubts about the Hun Sen government. He said Cambodians should be happy to freely discuss human-rights violations at a gathering like this in Tokyo but that there were no other viable alternatives to the Hun Sen government, despite its problems.

During the civil war years, the U.S., China and Japan made a serious mistake in aiding the Pol Pot rebels who were fighting against the Heng Samrin regime, supported by the Soviet Union and Vietnam. In an apparent reaction to the policy failure during the Cold War years, Japan has been promoting aid to the Hun Sen government as the country’s largest donor nation, making Cambodia a showcase of foreign aid.

But if it tolerates dictatorial rule by the Hun Sen government, Japan is in danger of repeating past policy mistakes. Japan courted disaster by aiding Presidents Suharto of Indonesia and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, who justified their dictatorships in the name of economic development.

Japan should pay more attention to protecting human rights in Cambodia, instead of concentrating solely on economic aid.

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