Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2018, 17:46 GMT

Countries at the Crossroads 2004 - Cambodia

Publisher Freedom House
Author Carolyn Bull
Publication Date 2004
Cite as Freedom House, Countries at the Crossroads 2004 - Cambodia, 2004, available at: [accessed 21 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

(Scores are based on a scale of 0 to 7, with 0 representing weakest and 7 representing strongest performance.)

Executive Summary


Carolyn Bull is a visiting scholar at the Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong. Her current research examines the efforts of UN peace operations to establish the rule of law in post-conflict situations, including Cambodia.

Since the turmoil of the late 1990s, Cambodia has made progress in restoring political stability, reducing social tensions, and alleviating poverty. Major obstacles remain, however, to the establishment of a pluralist democratic society in which those goals may be realized fully. The UN intervention of 1992-93 and a decade of development assistance have brought Cambodia the institutional rudiments of a democracy built on respect for human rights and the rule of law, but the state is weak and appears both unwilling and unable to guarantee either.

State-sponsored impunity for torture and other violations of civil liberties is systemic and generates mistrust of the government and state institutions. Relatively comprehensive legal safeguards – a legacy of the UN intervention – are rarely respected by the state. Torture, arbitrary and excessive detention, and political violence are common, while discrimination, trafficking, and the commercial exploitation of women and children continue. The government has demonstrated little political will to combat impunity. However, the agreement on June 6, 2003, between the United Nations (UN) and Cambodia to establish a tribunal to try former Khmer Rouge for human rights violations is an important step toward establishing a climate of accountability. The transparency and integrity of the process will be a key test of the government's resolve.

The judicial system is highly dysfunctional. The government has consistently failed to confront executive interference in the judiciary, which is highly politicized, corrupt, and poorly trained. Due process in investigations and trials is seldom upheld. The court system suffers from chronic maladministration and is poorly resourced. The state does not provide legal aid. The public does not trust the judiciary, and extrajudicial recourse is common. Meanwhile, the government has met few of its judicial reform commitments.

Weak governance and systemic state corruption constitute perhaps the two greatest constraints on economic and social development. The ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) dominates the state apparatus, allowing it to appropriate state resources on a massive scale. Government decision-making processes are nontransparent and nonparticipatory, while the legislature and civil society are not sufficiently developed to check the abuse of executive power. Accountability institutions, where established, lack neutrality.

The political deadlock that followed the July 27, 2003, national assembly elections highlights a fundamental lack of legitimacy in the democratic process. Election conduct and the broader political environment improved significantly in 2003 over the time of the 1998 elections, but the electoral process is still not fully free or fair. Progress toward this end is impeded by a sustained pattern of political intimidation and violence, uneven campaign opportunities, particularly inequitable media access, and the lack of neutrality of state institutions. Cambodians are unlikely to see a rotation of power until these problems are resolved.

Opportunities for Cambodians to function fully as citizens in a democracy are limited by the state's lack of respect for fundamental rights and freedoms and its disinclination to commit to the rule of law and neutral, incorrupt governance. A dearth of resources and skills greatly undermines state performance, but systemic political bias and widespread corruption in state structures are the greater problems. Electoral and land reform, efforts to combat human trafficking, and the development of a national audit authority are positive indications of the state leadership's ability to take action. However, sustained progress in these and other areas depends on a sea change in government attitudes.

Civil Liberties – 3.21

Article 38 of the constitution prohibits coercion and physical ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners, as well as arbitrary arrest and detention. Cambodia's core criminal legislation – the 1992 Provisions Relating to the Judiciary and Criminal Law and Procedure Applicable in Cambodia during the Transitional Period (hereafter the penal code) and the 1993 Law on Criminal Procedure – includes torture, arbitrary arrest, and detention provisions but does not fully meet Cambodia's international obligations as a signatory to the Convention Against Torture (CAT).

In practice, there is little protection from these crimes. Numerous instances have been documented of physical and psychological torture in police and prison custody, the vast majority of which occur immediately after arrest, making the extension in November 2001 of the maximum period of police detention without charge from 48 to 72 hours a matter of concern.1

Impunity for state perpetrators of torture is almost universal. State actors routinely protect security forces from prosecution or disciplinary action and consistently fail to investigate allegations of torture in detention. Where investigations are conducted, evidence is seldom uncovered.2 No convictions for torture were recorded between 1993 and April 2002, when three policemen were found guilty of torturing children to extract confessions.3

The state has responded inconsistently to killings of political activists, including by the police and military. Where action has been taken, police investigations have been deficient and court delays lengthy.

The constitution and the Law on Criminal Procedure permit victims of state breaches of law to file claims, but judicial corruption, reluctance to institute investigations, and bias in favor of state actors undermine the effectiveness of these provisions.

Arbitrary arrest is common and protection against it weak. Pretrial detention, often without access to lawyers or family representatives, routinely exceeds the legal limit of six months. Accused persons are entitled to legal representation, but for the poor this is accessible only through the nongovernmental organization (NGO) sector. A bail system has been introduced, but many prisoners do not have the resources to utilize it.

Protection of citizens from abuse by non-state actors is similarly weak, although the government's success in eliminating the Khmer Rouge and restoring relative stability following the 1997 coup has significantly improved the security environment for Cambodians since 1998.

Cambodia is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and gender equality is guaranteed under the constitution and other relevant laws. Women enjoy relatively equal voting, property, and marriage rights. The Labor Law prohibits workplace sexual harassment, which is not known to be a major problem. However, government efforts to combat gender discrimination are hindered by poor enforcement, resource shortfalls, and societal discrimination. Women struggle to gain management positions and poor families often prioritize education for males. Maternity leave, while legally guaranteed, is only offered in the state sector and those private agencies subject to monitoring. Despite laws against rape and assault, the state is reluctant to intervene in cases of domestic abuse. A draft Law on Domestic Violence is awaiting consideration by the national assembly.

State efforts to combat trafficking in women and children have increased but remain ineffective. The constitution prohibits commerce in human beings and Cambodia has acceded to the relevant international protocols. No comprehensive anti-trafficking law exists, but enforcement is possible under existing laws. This is hindered by the involvement of officials and police in trafficking, a weak judicial system, and low technical capacity. Nevertheless, the country's first child trafficking conviction occurred in 2002, when two traffickers were sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.4 The 15-year sentence imposed in October 2003 on four persons for running a child prostitution racket was a further step toward ending impunity. The government has also made progress in negotiating with Vietnam on repatriation of trafficking victims.

The rights of non-Khmer ethnic minorities, which constitute approximately 10 percent of the population,5 are inadequately protected. Discriminatory practices relate to citizenship and legal residence; electoral, natural resource, and cultural rights; and access to education and health care. Ethnic Chinese, Muslim Cham, and indigenous tribes are generally not discriminated against, but Khmers from southern Vietnam and ethnic Vietnamese are subjected to widespread animosity and racist propaganda. The legal rights of non-Khmer citizens are ambiguous. The constitution guarantees equality before the law only for Khmer citizens, and eligibility requirements for Khmer nationality under the 1996 Law on Nationality make it difficult for persons belonging to minority groups to establish their citizenship. This allows legal discrimination, particularly with respect to voting and land ownership, where only citizens of Khmer nationality enjoy constitutional rights.

Despite constitutional protections, the rights of children are routinely violated. Child abuse, commercial sexual exploitation, and sale for adoption are common. Child labor is an issue in the informal sector, particularly in the sex industry, in which over 15 percent of Cambodia's estimated 50,000 prostitutes are aged between 9 and 15 years.6

Buddhism is the state religion, but minority religions – Islam, Christianity, Baha'i, and Cao Dai – are well integrated and experience little social or official discrimination. The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and worship, subject to a public-order and security caveat. The state generally respects these rights, although in early 2003 it banned proselytizing by Christian groups.7

The constitution protects freedom of association and assembly. With the exception of the Khmer Rouge and other armed groups, which are banned, the state seldom inhibits membership in associations. Civic, business, and political organizations operate with relatively little interference, although criminal proceedings have been used to intimidate social activists. Of recent concern was the decision to sue a representative of the environmental NGO Global Witness who criticized the government for "disinformation" and the arrest and deportation in 2002 of two Falungong members who were under United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) protection.8

With unionization at less than 1 percent of the workforce, the union movement is small but growing. The 1997 Labor Law accords workers the right to form and join labor unions of their own choosing, to bargain collectively, and to strike. However, employers regularly engage in anti-union activity and discriminate against trade union members, and they have never been prosecuted under the Labor Law. On the other hand, the state has arrested union leaders for allegedly inciting violence.

The constitution guarantees the right to non-violent demonstration, although under the 1991 Law on Demonstrations (Articles 1 and 3) the state may ban gatherings deemed "detrimental to public tranquility, order or security." State intervention has for the most part been restrained, although demonstrations in 1998 and December 2002 were violently suppressed. By contrast, security forces failed to intervene in the violent anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh on January 29, 2003, which resulted in the sacking of the Thai Embassy and Thai businesses. This points to government incitement of mob violence for political gain, together with the use of riots as a pretext to ban further demonstrations in Phnom Penh.9 The opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), established in 1998 by the former minister for finance and economy, Sam Rainsy, accuses Prime Minister Hun Sen of planning and backing the riot, but this is unconfirmed. Coupled with a proclamation by the director-general of national police following the riots that any protests over the results of the July 27, 2003, national assembly election would be "clamped down upon," the direction taken by the government with respect to freedom of demonstration raises concern.


State leaders must make a genuine commitment to ending impunity and to investing resources sufficient to promote change in state and social practices. The government should amend existing legislation to comply fully with Cambodia's international obligations, particularly regarding torture and, with respect to the rights of non-ethnic Khmers, the principle of nondiscrimination. It should fully and promptly investigate allegations of state torture and ensure appropriate prosecution and punishment, including through an effective Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Practical measures aimed at preventing torture are necessary, such as regular and independent prison inspections, guaranteed access to prisoners, and procedures to make evidence obtained through torture inadmissible in court. Police and prison detention conditions must be improved, including food, clothing, and health care. Greater efforts should be made to reduce discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, particularly Vietnamese. Efforts to combat human trafficking and the sexual and commercial exploitation of women and children need to be increased.

Rule of Law – 2.04

The constitution guarantees judicial independence, but separation of powers is not upheld in practice. Executive interference in the appointment and conduct of judges and prosecutors, all of whom are CPP appointees, is rife.10 Politically related crimes are seldom prosecuted. Executive interference has included instructions from the prime minister for charges to be dropped, the dismissal of judges by the minister of justice, the re-arrest of suspects released by the courts, and open intimidation of judges in court by members of the armed forces.11 Court budgets are not separate from the ministry of justice, nor is there any declaration of assets requirement for judicial officials. The Supreme Council of Magistracy (SCM), which appoints, oversees, and disciplines judges and prosecutors, lacks independence from the executive and political parties, is unable to fulfill its disciplinary function, and has made questionable judicial appointments.

Cambodia's inadequate legal framework relies on an incomplete set of laws drafted hastily by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, which implemented the Cambodian peace settlement from 1992 to 1993 and oversaw Cambodia's first democratic elections in May 1993. Drafts of a new penal code, a code on criminal procedures, a civil code, and a code on civil procedures have been prepared with international assistance, but there appears to be little political will to enact them.

The court system lacks both resources and an adequate institutional framework. Lengthy delays and chronic maladministration are common. Corruption is endemic, due in part to extremely low salaries; judges receive an average income of only US$20 per month.12 Cambodia suffers from an acute shortage of judges and lawyers. Only some 37 percent of judges have any legal training, and only 40 percent have reached high school.13 Legal education is now being offered by universities and specialist schools, but it will be some years before this has a positive impact.

Civil and criminal matters are frequently resolved extrajudicially. The use of summary and mob justice is widespread, particularly in rural areas, and police are often complicit or reluctant to intervene. Citizens tend to ignore the law in favor of less transparent patronage systems, especially the intervention of senior officials. Court officials and the police often pressure victims to settle disputes extrajudicially. Both state and non-state actors enjoy impunity across all areas of law.

Legally, trials are public and defendants have the right to be present at trials, to consult with a lawyer, to question witnesses, and to bring witnesses and evidence before the courts. Cambodians are also constitutionally entitled to the presumption of innocence and the right of appeal. In practice, however, investigative and trial procedures generally fall far short of international standards. Shaped by its Vietnamese/Soviet predecessor, the trial system is characterized by a high conviction rate, the determination of verdicts before trials begin, and reliance on forced confessions. Defendants are often arrested and detained without warrants and denied prompt trial. Investigative processes are typically deeply flawed and trials usually lack sufficient evidence or cross-examination. The right of presumption of innocence is routinely violated; judges often predetermine trial outcomes after consultation with the ministry of justice or provincial authorities. The right of appeal is sometimes compromised by logistical problems in transferring appellants to courts in Phnom Penh, resulting in their absence when appeals are heard. Public officials, as well as ruling party actors and members of their families, are seldom brought before the courts. The financial ability of a defendant to bribe judges is a key determinant of the verdict.14

Police or prison officials frequently deny defendants access to legal advice or representation, or defendants cannot afford it. Citizens routinely appear in court without defense counsel; illiterate defendants are often not informed of the content of the written confessions they are forced to sign. All legal aid in Cambodia is funded by NGOs and the Bar Association, with no state assistance,15 although NGOs have made some progress in improving access to legal counsel and acquittal rates for the poor.

While the national police and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces are nominally under civilian control, the state lacks the institutional capacity or political will to exercise that control. The armed forces exert excessive influence in politics, the economy, and state policy making and are the most powerful authority in many rural areas.16 Creditable progress has been made toward demobilization, but trust-building and employment creation remain key issues.

Military and police personnel enjoy widespread impunity, although there have been some convictions for politically motivated killings in recent years. In cases involving military personnel heard within the civilian rather than military court system, military officers regularly exert pressure on judges to have defendants released without trial.17 The military court system is partisan and poorly resourced. There is no independent authority to investigate complaints against the police.

Insecurity of land tenure has been a major source of conflict and human rights violations since forced collectivization under the Khmer Rouge. Land grabbing and evictions by powerful interests, including the military or businesses connected with local officials, have systemically displaced the poor. Courts are largely unable to enforce land rights, and disputes are subject to political interventions. Local dispute-resolution processes have typically been marred by conflict of interest. In 2002 the government established cadastral commissions at local, provincial, and national levels – an important step toward conciliating conflicts – but they are not yet operational.

The passage of the Land Law in 2001 was a significant step forward. It clarifies rights issues, recognizes communal land rights for indigenous people, and allows for systematic land registration and records maintenance. True progress is, however, dependent on courts operating according to the rule of law.


State leaders must commit themselves to ending executive interference in the judiciary and to a determined and thorough overhaul of the judicial system. In so doing, the government should upgrade the legal framework by enacting the draft penal code, code on criminal procedure, civil code and code on civil procedure, and subsidiary regulations. The structural reform of judicial institutions should be expedited, including amending laws to clarify the organization and functioning of courts, and resources allocated to judicial reform should be increased. Judicial professionalism should be enhanced through measures such as training to improve trial procedures. In addition, the government should address the problem of judicial corruption, for example through the establishment of an independent anticorruption commission, support for independent monitoring of the judiciary, improving the transparency of criminal processes including mandating the presence of lawyers for the accused and forbidding trial judges from reviewing evidence prior to trials, and strengthening the ability of the judiciary to resist corruption through improved personal security and adequate remuneration. Finally, the government should establish a legal aid program.

Anticorruption and Transparency – 2.11

Corruption drains an estimated 10 percent of Cambodia's gross domestic product (GDP).18 The government made a strong commitment to fight corruption in its 2001 Governance Action Plan and by joining the ADB-OECD regional Anti-Corruption Initiative in March 2003 but has made scant progress. Corruption is a way of life in business and for state agents, notably the judiciary, customs and business-licensing officials, the police, and the tax authority.19 The ruling party continues to appropriate state resources on a massive scale to maintain its dominance over the security forces and the state infrastructure.20 Tolerance of corruption by the public and civil servants is high; a survey in 1998 showed that 84 percent of Cambodians felt bribery was the normal way of doing things.21

Opportunities for state corruption are extensive. The bureaucracy is cumbersome, politicized, and unregulated, while the broader regulatory environment is nontransparent. The weakness of internal and external accountability mechanisms – particularly dysfunctional courts – makes the risk of engaging in corruption very low. Public sector salaries are often less than 20 percent of the living wage, making corruption essential to survival.22 As decentralization takes place following the creation in 2002 of a new commune-level administration, there is a risk that opportunities for corruption will increase.

The state does not adequately protect against conflicts of interest in public office. No conflict-of-interest legislation exists, although the constitution prohibits members of the government from carrying on professional activities in trade or industry or holding any position in the public service. The legislature and the executive are not expressly prohibited from using state assets for business or political ventures.

Although the state itself refrains from excessive involvement in the economy, no accountability mechanism exists to check the business interests of members of the government or national assembly. Officials flagrantly abuse position for commercial privilege: The business interests of the CPP's top clique, for example, are estimated at US$400 million annually.23

Although the government has been working toward anticorruption legislation since 1995, a draft anticorruption law is yet to be passed and no anticorruption authority exists. At present it is possible to prosecute under the penal code. The Common Statute of Civil Servants forbids civil servants to use their positions for personal profit or to manage private enterprises. It also provides for internal sanctions, which are seldom, if ever, activated.24 Some improvements to legislation have been made, notably the revocation in 1999 of Article 51 of the Common Statute, which gave ministries the right to waive prosecution of their employees. Government officials continue, however, to enjoy almost complete impunity for corruption. While some arrests of state officials relating to trafficking have reportedly been made, as of August 2003 the government had not prosecuted any cases of official corruption, despite committing itself at the June 2002 donors' meeting to do so with immediate effect.

Financial disclosure procedures are similarly inadequate. No legislation covers the declaration of assets and liabilities of state officials, nor are there processes for public scrutiny or verification of financial assets. The enactment in 2000 of an Audit Law for external and internal audit arrangements was a key step toward accountable financial management. As internal government audit systems lack independence, they have not significantly improved government accountability. Cambodia's first external audit body, the National Audit Authority (NAA), was created in January 2002. It has its own budget and makes public reports directly to the national assembly, although lack of legal infrastructure, experience, and resources has impeded its effectiveness. Senior positions are politicized, raising doubts about the NAA's independence. The establishment of an ombudsman's office was mooted in the government's 2002 National Poverty Reduction Strategy, but little progress has been observed.

Higher education suffers from pervasive corruption. Students need to pay large bribes to secure admission to universities. As lecturers do not receive a living wage, they charge students informal fees. Teaching staff must pay large bribes to secure teaching positions.25

The judicial system, itself arguably the country's most corrupt institution, provides little recourse for corruption victims to pursue their rights. Although allegations of government corruption – including at the highest levels – receive widespread coverage in the media, there are few avenues by which corruption can be monitored and the government pressured to improve accountability. Anticorruption activists risk government persecution, while the national assembly and senate are ineffective at monitoring government performance. Corruption has, however, moved to the center of political debate.

Although gradually improving, public access to government information and public participation in government decision-making processes is poor and citizens lack effective means to express their preferences to policy makers. Lawmaking and enforcement are generally not transparent. Televised debates have increased the transparency of the legislative process somewhat, but there is no notice and comment period prior to the approval of a law or regulation. Public input is limited to irregular consultations between the government and civil society groups. National assembly and senate members seldom receive copies of laws, regulations, or related government decisions, further weakening their role in the accountability process. The government has begun periodically publishing and distributing an official gazette of new Cambodian laws and subsidiary regulations, but this has only partly addressed the need for a comprehensive archive of laws.

Cambodia's weak and nontransparent budget process hinders policy implementation and provides extensive opportunities for corruption. Legal and technical deficiencies in the public accounting system make it easy to divert funds illegally. Agencies generally fail to comply with the requirements of the budget law, and funds are seldom disbursed or utilized in accordance with budget plans.26 The national assembly's commission on finance and banking scrutinizes the budget, but it lacks the technical capacity to do a meaningful job. It is as yet unclear how effective the NAA will be in performing this role.

The government has made little progress in implementing and enforcing 1995 legislation on public procurement. Procurement processes are corrupt, nontransparent, and not subject to effective control procedures. There are no specific legal penalties for procurement-related corruption.

Cambodia has no freedom of information law and few established procedures to access information. Information disclosure is patchy and generally at the discretion of the government. Budget, national account, and other economic and social indicators are available to the public on a regular and timely basis but with variable accuracy.27 Defense and other sensitive information is kept secret and business and corporate information guarded closely.28 Negotiations on key policy decisions are secretive.

The 1995 Press Law grants journalists right of access to information in government-held records, albeit subject to national security and other caveats, and the right to publish accurate official information. It does not, however, cover the general public or sanction officials who deny access to information.29 Ordinary citizens must generally present written requests in person and in many cases experience lengthy or indefinite delays, while journalists rely on personal connections rather than established procedures. Deterred by excessive bureaucracy, the requirement for bribery, illiteracy, and perceptions that the state is inaccessible, citizens rarely attempt to obtain information.30

The government enables the legal administration and distribution of foreign assistance, although the distribution of such assistance is susceptible to corruption in procurement. Aid comprises 60 percent of the national budget, and the government is therefore heavily dependent on it.


The government needs systemic reform at both national and sub-national levels to address government corruption, lack of transparency, and procedural inefficiency. The government should seek to end the culture of impunity by imposing stiff anticorruption measures, such as enacting laws on anticorruption, assets declaration, and conflict of interest; establishing an independent anticorruption commission; ensuring the independence of the NAA and strengthening its technical capacity; and prioritizing the establishment of an independent ombudsman's office. The parliamentary processes should be improved, especially with respect to the capacity of the legislature to monitor government performance and conduct meaningful dialogue with constituents. Public finance reform should continue, particularly public procurement and budget reconciliation procedures. Access to information needs to be improved, including through enacting freedom of information legislation and strengthening the information infrastructure.

Accountability and Public Voice – 3.04

Cambodia's constitutional monarchy is headed by an appointed king, who appoints the prime minister and council of ministers from elected national assembly representatives. The bicameral parliament comprises a directly elected national assembly and a senate appointed in proportion to party standing in the national assembly. March 1999 amendments to the constitution allow for the election of all senators beginning in 2004, with the exception of two appointed by the king and two elected by a majority vote of the national assembly. The postponement of this election, while constitutionally legal, is of concern.31 At the provincial government level, governors and chiefs are appointed by the prime minister and are currently distributed between the CPP and the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), its junior coalition partner prior to the July 2003 elections. At the local level, commune councils were elected for the first time in 2002, replacing the Communist model of appointed commune party chiefs in use since the 1970s.

The dominance of the CPP in state institutions makes distinction between the ruling party and the state difficult, particularly at the commune level. The national assembly does not provide a significant check on the executive, although it is becoming a greater force for debate. The senate's role is largely perfunctory.

Cambodia continues to make incremental progress toward democratic consolidation. Cambodia's Election Law is fair and was improved significantly by amendments in 2002 on separation of powers, party registration, and voter education. Suffrage is universal and equal for Khmer citizens over 18 years, and voting is conducted by secret ballot.

National elections are regular and open to multiple parties, although political pluralism is not well established. Since the first democratic elections, in 1993, the CPP has used its dominance of the state apparatus to strengthen its grip and restrict opportunities for the effective rotation of power. It increased its share of the vote in the July 27, 2003, national assembly election, winning 73 of 123 seats, but again fell short of the two-thirds majority required to form a government. FUNCINPEC won 26 seats; the SRP won 24 seats. The ensuing deadlock in negotiating a coalition under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, while destabilizing, nonetheless indicated that FUNCINPEC and the SRP retained some political leverage. The more dynamic, issue-oriented nature of party platforms and a 50 percent increase in the share of vote to the SRP, the only major nongovernment party to contest the elections, indicated some level of democratic development.

The conduct of the 2003 election improved over 1998, although it was marred by uneven campaigning opportunities, fraud, political violence, and intimidation. All parties, including the SRP, campaigned freely. However, the campaign environment favored the CPP due to its control of the primary mechanisms by which Cambodians receive information: the broadcast media and commune chiefs, who are 99 percent CPP. New regulations instituted by the National Election Committee (NEC) improved media equity for opposition parties, but the CPP used its control of state and private television stations to restrict access and malign its political opponents. The campaign environment was further sullied by government restrictions on party activities and the arrest of SRP activists.32

State-sanctioned political violence continues. Although the 2003 election was less violent than those of 1998 and 2002, the domestic monitoring group the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia reported 31 killings in the eight months prior to the elections.33 Killings continued in the wake of the postelection deadlock, with the assassination on October 18 of the deputy editor of a FUNCINPEC radio station, following an alleged warning by Hun Sen not to "insult" his leadership, and the shooting on October 22 of a pop star associated with FUNCINPEC.34 Meanwhile, accountability for violence and intimidation, while weak, has improved since 1998. Several convictions were recorded for violence committed in relation to the 2002 elections.

The regulatory environment, registration, polling, and vote counting for the 2003 election were generally good and significantly improved over 1998, although some irregularities were observed. In contrast to 1998, there was little evidence of police or military interference. However, campaign finance regulation remained inadequate, and the CPP used state resources, including transportation, personnel, and office space, to further its campaign. All the major parties engaged in vote-buying. Voters were also coerced into joining parties or making oaths of allegiance.35

Election administration remains politically biased. The NEC is controlled by the CPP; provincial commune election committees are almost exclusively affiliated with the CPP or FUNCINPEC. The NEC's administrative capacity is weak, and it has proven ineffective in investigating and penalizing electoral offenses.

Appointment within the civil service is not merit-based, with little transparency in the hiring and promotion of officials. A large number of current public servants received their jobs because they supported either the CPP or FUNCINPEC.

Women are greatly underrepresented in politics, the government, and the civil service. Women hold two ministerial appointments, 8.3 percent of commune council seats, 9.8 percent of national assembly seats, 15 percent of senate seats, and 8 percent of civil service positions.36

Cambodia's independent civic sector has expanded rapidly since the first NGO was registered in 1991 and plays a key role in the nation's development. The state generally protects the rights of this sector, which are guaranteed under the constitution. Civic associations operate relatively freely, conducting investigations, publicizing findings, and commenting on government policy. Donors and funders of civic organizations and public policy institutes are generally free of state pressures. However, occasional state-sponsored harassment, intimidation, and attacks still occur, and there are few channels for government-civic dialogue.

The constitution protects freedom of expression, press, and publication, as long as they do not adversely affect "public order," "national security," and "political stability." The 1995 Press Law prohibits prepublication censorship and imprisonment for expression of opinion. However, a vague national security caveat gives the government the right to fine, suspend, and confiscate newspapers.

The print media are relatively free and accessible to all major parties. Newspapers have contributed to both government accountability and freedom of expression, although they reach under 10 percent of the population. The two largest newspapers are considered pro-CPP, but most of Cambodia's 20-odd newspapers carry a wide range of news items critical of the government, the prime minister, and the CPP. By contrast, the CPP tightly controls access to the broadcast media, which reach more than half the population. CPP coverage overwhelmingly dominates that of its opponents, and licensing and allocation of television and radio frequencies are politically biased. The Internet is unrestricted but has limited reach.37

Media self-censorship is common. In addition, state censorship has included banning the re-broadcasting of Voice of America and Radio Free Asia reports, censorship of live telecasts of national assembly sessions, and bans on the sale of publications.38 The government has also sought to control media content through use of defamation provisions in the penal code and Press Law and to intimidate journalists through threats, short-term detentions, and suspensions. Opposition journalists and the independent media were increasingly subject to threats, arrests, and closure in the year preceding the 2003 election.39


The government must take steps to enhance the fairness of the electoral process and remove restrictions on freedom of expression. It should end election violence and intimidation, guarantee candidates equal and fair news coverage, and ensure the unbiased dissemination of information by village chiefs. Electoral reform needs to continue, particularly registration and complaints processes and reform of the NEC and its provincial counterparts. Voter education should be strengthened regarding the role of elections and the legislature, appropriate official complaints channels, and the rights and responsibilities of voters. The government should take measures to improve government accountability and transparency, including establishing regular channels for government dialogue with civil society on policy making, merit-based civil service appointments, and assistance to strengthen the monitoring role of the national assembly. It must desist from interfering with and intimidating the media and ensure that media licensing procedures are not subject to bias.


1 Cambodia, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2002 (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 31 March 2003),; Kingdom of Cambodia: A human rights review based on the Convention against Torture (London: Amnesty International, 2003),; Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 19 of the Convention: Conclusions and Recommendations: Cambodia, D.6.(d) (New York: UN Committee Against Torture, CAT/C/CR/30/2, 9 May 2003; Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia (New York: UN Commission on Human Rights, CHR Resolution 2003/79, 25 April 2003).

2 Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State); Kingdom of Cambodia (Amnesty International); Conclusions and Recommendations (UN Committee Against Torture); Situation (UN Commission on Human Rights), para 10.

3 LAC Quarterly, February 2003, (Phnom Penh: Legal Aid of Cambodia),

4 Congressional Budget Justification 2004 (Washington, DC: U.S. Agency for Interntional Development [USAID], 2003),

5 Pen Dareth, Introduction to Interdisciplinary Research on Ethnic Groups in Cambodia (Phnom Penh: Centre for Advanced Study, July 1996).

6 Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

7 Porter Barron and Kuch Naren, "A New Directive Seeks to Curtail Evangelism in Cambodia," Cambodia Daily, 8-9 March 2003.

8 "Cambodia: Government Intimidation and Harassment of Human Rights Defenders," ASA 23/001/2003 (London: Amnesty International, 24 January 2003).

9 World Report 2003 (Human Rights Watch); Report on the 2003 National Assembly Election (Phnom Penh: Cambodian Center for Human Rights [CCHR], August 2003), 6; "Statement of the NDI Pre-Election Delegation to Cambodia's 2003 National Assembly Elections" (Phnom Penh: National Democratic Institute [NDI], 5 June 2003), 5.

10 Situation (UN Commission on Human Rights), para 5.

11 Kingdom of Cambodia: Urgent Need for Judicial Reform, AI Index: ASA23/004/2002 (London: Amnesty International, 19 June 2002); Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

12 Kingdom of Cambodia: Urgent Need (Amnesty International).

13 Cambodia: Governance Reform Progressing, But Key Efforts Are Lagging, GAO-02-569 (Washington, DC: U.S. General Accounting Office [GAO], June 2002), 9.

14 Cambodia: Governance Reform (U.S. GAO), 8.

15 UN Secretary-General, Role and Achievements of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Assisting the Government and People of Cambodia in the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, A/58/268 (New York: UN General Assembly, 8 August 2003), 11.

16 Sorpong Peou, Intervention and Change in Cambodia: Towards Democracy? (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2000), 366.

17 Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

18 Cambodia: Governance Reform (U.S. GAO), 9-10.

19 Cambodia Governance and Corruption Diagnostic: Evidence from Citizen, Enterprise and Public Officials Survey (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2000), 5.

20 The Run-up to Cambodia's 2003 National Assembly Election: Political Expression and Freedom of Assembly under Assault (New York: Human Rights Watch, June 2003), 2.

21 National Survey on Public Attitudes Towards Corruption (Phnom Penh, Center for Social Development, 1998).

22 Cambodia: Governance Reform (U.S. GAO), 10-11.

23 Christopher Gunness, "Cambodia's 'Missing' PM," BBC News/Asia Pacific, 25 July 2003,

24 Articles 35 and 40, Kram dated October 26, 1994 on the Common Statute of Civil Servants, Phnom Penh.

25 Judy Ledgerwood, "Education in Cambodia."; NGO Recommendations to Enhance the Success of the Royal Government of Cambodia's Governance Action Plan (Phnom Penh: NGO Forum on Cambodia, June 2002),

26 Clay G. Westcott, ed., Key Governance Issues in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam (Manila: Asian Development Bank, 2001), 9,

27 Cambodia Development Review, vol 7, no. 2, April-June 2003 (Phnom Penh: Cambodia Development Resource Institute),

28 Peter Eng, "Cambodia: Restricted Information in a Semi-democracy," in Sheila Coronel, ed., The Right to Know: Access to Information in Southeast Asia (Manila: Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, 2001), 43-63.

29 Kram Dated September 1, 1995 on the Regime of the Press, Articles 4 and 5, Phnom Penh: Kingdom of Cambodia.

30 Peter Eng, "Cambodia: Restricted Information," 54.

31 Cambodia Election Alert, vol. 1, no. 1 (Phnom Penh: Cambodian Center for Human Rights [CCHR]), March 2003.

32 "Pre-election Delegation" (NDI), 4-6.

33 The Run-up (Human Rights Watch), 2.

34 "Pre-election Delegation" (NDI), 5; "Killing Shakes Hopes of Cambodian Deal," South China Morning Post, 20 October 2003, 8; Jan McGirk, "King Despairs for Cambodia after Murder of Pop Star," Independent, 23 October 2003,

35 For comprehensive election observation reports, see "Pre-Election Delegation" (NDI); Report on the 2003 National Assembly Elections (Phnom Penh: Cambodian Center for Human Rights, 2003),; Cambodia Elections (FRD), 2, 4; The Run-Up (Human Rights Watch), 2; Democracy in Cambodia – 2003 (The Asia Foundation), 7.

36 Number of female elected candidates for the 3rd National Assembly Election, Press Release 09.415/03 NEC (Phnom Penh: National Election Committee [NEC]), 4 September 2003),

37 Background Note: Cambodia (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, June 2003),; Cambodia – 2003 Annual Report (Paris: Reporters sans Frontieres, 2 May 2003),; "Pre-Election Delegation" (NDI), 3; Democracy in Cambodia – 2003 (The Asia Foundation), 15.

38 World Report 2003 (Human Rights Watch); Report on the 2003 National Assembly Election (CCHR), 8; Country Reports (U.S. Dept. of State).

39 "Pre-election Delegation" (NDI). According to Amnesty International, in January 2003, the owner of the independent radio station Sambok Kmum (Beehive) and the editor of the Rasmei Angkor newspaper were detained without warrants for allegedly airing unsubstantiated reports that incited the anti-Thai riots, and Sambok Kmum was closed down. See Cambodia: Freedom of expression under attack, Press Release ASA 23/002/2003 (London: Amnesty International, 10 February 2003). In July 2002, the opposition newspaper reporter Sok Sothea was detained at the ministry of interior for sharing a leaked document with another reporter. In August 2002 the opposition paper Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience) was suspended for 30 days for publishing an article that allegedly compromised national security. See Cambodia (Human Rights Watch).

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