1998 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 6.0
Civil Liberties: 6
Political Rights: 6

Ratings Change

Cambodia's political rights rating changed from 7 to 6 because the July 1998 elections, although neither free nor fair, permitted some degree of opposition participation.


Seeking international legitimacy, strongman Hun Sen held deeply flawed elections in July 1998 that are unlikely to weaken Cambodia's deep hatreds and culture of impunity fostered by 30 years of war, mass killings, and political violence.

After achieving independence from France in 1953, Cambodia was ruled in succession by King Norodom Sihanouk, the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime in the early 1970s, and the Maoist Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. The Khmer Rouge's radical agrarian policies led to the killing of at least 1.7 million of Cambodia's 7 million people through executions, overwork, and starvation. In 1978, Vietnam invaded and installed the Communist Khmer People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP).

A civil war between the KPRP government and the allied armies of Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and former premier Son Sann ended with an internationally brokered 1991 peace accord, although the Khmer Rouge eventually continued its guerrilla insurgency. Contrary to the accord, the KPRP government, headed by Hun Sen, a Khmer Rouge defector, maintained control of 80 percent of the army, most key ministries, and provincial and local authorities. In Cambodia's first free National Assembly elections, organized by the United Nations in 1993, the royalist opposition United Front for an Independent, Neutral, and Free Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a Sihanouk son, won 58 of the 120 seats. The CPP, the successor to the KPRP, won 51.

Hun Sen forced Ranariddh into accepting a coalition government with the two leaders as co-premiers. The new government carried out political violence and legal and physical attacks on the press. In 1994, FUNCINPEC removed reformist Finance Minister Sam Rainsy. By 1996, Hun Sen had used his continuing control of the army and political institutions to grab near total power. In 1997, Hun Sen seized full power in a coup, apparently after Ranariddh had secured the backing of a breakaway Khmer Rouge faction. Pro-CCP security forces summarily executed at least 41 FUNCINPEC officials, activists, and soldiers and arrested hundreds of others.

After the coup, the United Nations refused to allow Hun Sen's government to represent Cambodia, the Association of Southeast Asian nations postponed the country's admission, donor governments and multilateral institutions cut most aid, and foreign investment and tourism dwindled. In an attempt to to hold a controlled election that would meet minimal international standards, Hun Sen agreed to a Japanese-brokered plan under which two show trials in March 1998 convicted Ranariddh in absentia of conspiracy and weapons smuggling, King Sinhanouk issued a royal pardon, and the Prince returned to Cambodia after nine months in exile.

Despite considerable constraints, opposition parties ran vigorous campaigns for the July elections, which drew a turnout of more than 90 percent. The CPP won a reported 41.4 percent of the vote and approximately 59 seats, but, as counting ended, the CCP-controlled National Election Council changed the electoral formula, thereby giving the CCP a majority with 64 seats. FUNCINPEC won 43 seats, while the Sam Rainsy Party won 15. Police forcibly dispersed election-related protests in September. In late November, Hun Sen formed a new government as the head of a coalition of his CPP and FUNCINPEC.

Since 1996, key Khmer Rouge leaders and thousands of guerrillas have formally ended their armed struggle. In April, the Khmer Rouge announced the death of former leader Pol Pot, the architect of the 1970s killings. In late December, Khieu Samphan, former nominal leader of the Khmer Rouge, and Nuon Chea, the movement's chief ideologue, surrendered to the government. Hun Sen rejected calls for an international tribunal to try the men on charges of genocide or crimes against humanity.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Cambodia's 1998 elections were neither free nor fair. The campaign was held in a climate of violence due to the government's failure to investigate dozens of political killings. Hun Sen wielded his near monopoly over the civil service, local administration, military police, and Khmer-language media to a decisive advantage, and the CCP used intimidation and violence to purge numerous political rivals at the national and local levels. Authorities denied opposition parties access to broadcast media, disrupted some opposition rallies, and banned political demonstrations in Phnom Penh during the official election campaign.

Politicians have deliberately kept institutions weak, and the rudimentary judiciary is not independent. Following the 1997 coup, courts reportedly convicted several FUNCINPEC members on false charges in summary trials. Prisons are dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary, and inmates are mistreated.

Numerous FUNCINPEC supporters were reportedly detained and beaten in the months following the coup. In April, UN officials reported evidence of 50 new political killings, in addition to the 41 killings reported following the 1997 coup. They later reported at least 21 political killings, mainly of FUNCINPEC supporters, between late May and election day. The CCP continues to loot FUNCINPEC offices and otherwise target the party's infrastructure. Security forces routinely harass and intimidate nongovernmental human rights activists.

Many of the country's private newspapers closed after the coup. While some reopened, the press operates under severe pressure. Journalists are routinely harassed, threatened, and attacked, and there have been no convictions in the cases of at least four journalists murdered since 1993. The 1995 press law subjects the press to criminal statutes and authorizes the government to suspend publication of a newspaper for up to one month without a court order. In January, the Information Ministry temporarily suspended publication of six pro-opposition newspapers after they published articles critical of the government. Hun Sen and his allies control the 10 radio stations and six television stations. In 1996, the government suspended authorization of new broadcast media and newspapers.

The Constitution refers only to the rights of the ethnic Khmer majority, thereby complicating the legal status of the estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Vietnamese residents. The Khmer Rouge has massacred scores of Vietnamese villagers in recent years. In April, it killed at least 21 ethnic Vietnamese villagers in Kompong Chhnang province.

Traditional norms relegate women to an inferior status, and domestic violence is common. In April, police forcibly ended a Phnom Penh demonstration by garment workers protesting poor working conditions at foreign-owned factories. Official corruption is widespread.

In 1996, Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary nominally defected to the government with several thousand soldiers, but he has been allowed to maintain control of the area around the western town of Pailin. This Khmer Rouge remnant rules its minuscule territory in a brutal manner, denying basic rights and largely banning Buddhist religious practices. In the spring of 1998, heavy fighting between Cambodian troops and Khmer Rouge guerrillas drove approximately 30,000 villagers to the Thai border. The last remaining active Khmer Rouge fighters no longer hold territory.

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