Capital: Phnom Penh
Population: 14,805,000

Political Rights Score: 6 *
Civil Liberties Score: 5 *
Status: Not Free

Trend Arrow ↓

Cambodia received a downward trend arrow due to the deportation of 20 Uighur asylum-seekers to China in December 2009.


Land grabs and official corruption continued in 2009, and the government's harassment of its critics appeared to worsen. Two opposition members of parliament were stripped of immunity; one was tried in absentia for defaming the prime minister, and the other was threatened with arrest for allegedly claiming that Vietnam is encroaching on Cambodia. The parliament also approved a new penal code which opponents argue will allow for government abuse. Separately, the international tribunal trying former high-ranking officials of the Khmer Rouge regime heard its first testimony in March, and Cambodian authorities in December deported 20 Uighur asylum-seekers to China despite human rights concerns.

Cambodia won independence from France in 1953. King Norodom Sihanouk ruled until he was ousted in 1970 by U.S.-backed military commander Lon Nol, and the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge (KR) seized power in 1975. Between 250,000 and two million of Cambodia's seven million people died from disease, overwork, starvation, or execution under the KR before Vietnamese forces toppled the regime and installed a new communist government in 1979. Fighting continued in the 1980s between the Hanoi-backed government and the allied armies of Sihanouk, the KR, and other political contenders. The 1991 Paris Peace Accords halted open warfare, but the Khmer Rouge waged a low-grade insurgency until its disintegration in the late 1990s.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who first entered government as part of the Vietnamese-backed regime in 1979, came to dominate national politics through his Cambodian People's Party (CPP), which controlled the National Assembly, military, courts and police. They quashed any challenge to their authority with lawsuits, prosecutions, or extralegal actions. Opposition figures, journalists, and democracy advocates were given criminal sentences or faced violent attacks by unknown assailants in public spaces. Hun Sen's divide-and-rule tactics succeeded in fracturing and weakening the opposition even further, as he formed coalitions with one opposition party to outmaneuver another.

A special tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, was established in 2007 to try former KR officials for genocide and other crimes against humanity. The tribunal's launch was delayed for years by bureaucratic and funding obstacles. It was given three years to complete its work. Cases are decided by majority vote among five justices (three are Cambodian), and victims must file complaints as a group; the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. Five former high-level KR leaders were charged at the end of 2008 – the first time anyone had been charged for the atrocities committed by the KR. The accused were former head of state Khieu Samphan, former foreign minister Ieng Sary, former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith, former second-in-command of the KR Nuon Chea, and former chief of the Tuol Sleng prison Kang Kek Ieu (also known as Duch). KR mastermind Pol Pot and his successor Ta Mok died before they could be brought to trial.

In the 2008 elections, the CPP took 90 of 123 parliamentary seats, and Hun Sen was reelected as prime minister. The opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) took 26 seats, up from 24; the Funcinpec party took 2 seats, down from 26; and two new parties, the Human Rights Party and the Norodom Ranariddh Party, took 3 and 2 seats, respectively. Opposition parties rejected the results, citing political intimidation and violence. They also alleged that the National Election Committee worked with pro-CPP local authorities to delete potential opposition supporters from the voter rolls, changed polling stations shortly before voting began to confuse opposition supporters, and issued fraudulent forms that allowed people not on the rolls to vote. With the opposition divided and unproven in the eyes of the voters, and the country enjoying relative political stability and sustained moderate economic growth, the CPP commanded a measure of credibility despite public frustration with widespread corruption and other problems. Local and international election observers said there were fewer incidents of violence and flagrant use of fraud tactics than in previous elections, though they still fell short of international standards.

In March 2009, testimony began at the special tribunal for former KR officials. Only Kang Kek Ieu publicly apologized for his part in the atrocities committed; the other four defendants denied any knowledge of the crimes. Meanwhile, the tribunal was running low on funds, jeopardizing its operations, and critics said corruption and abuse, including nepotism in hiring, remained serious problems.

Throughout 2009, critics of the government continued to face legal harassment. In June, Hang Chakra, publisher and editor in chief of the Khmer Machas Srok newspaper, was tried and sentenced in absentia to one year in prison and a $2,250 fine for "misinformation" and "dishonoring public officials." Hang had published articles in May alleging corruption in the office of the deputy prime minister. His defense attorney had only one day to prepare for the trial. Separately, opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua, a former minister for women's and veterans' affairs, was stripped of parliamentary immunity and convicted of defamation in absentia in August. In November, opposition leader Sam Rainsy was also stripped of parliamentary immunity and threatened with arrest for allegedly claiming that Vietnam is encroaching on Cambodia – a matter of considerable political sensitivity given the history between the two countries. To give legal basis to these actions, the parliament approved a new penal code in October to replace the 1992 code adopted under the United Nations Transitional Authority. Critics argue that the language in the new penal code is too vague and gives excessive authority to judges to interpret laws in a system where the judiciary is not independent.

In an indication of China's growing influence in the country, Cambodian authorities forcibly deported 20 Uighur asylum-seekers, including two infants, to China in December, despite warnings from UN officials and human rights groups that they could face torture or other mistreatment for alleged involvement in fomenting unrest.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Cambodia is not an electoral democracy. The current constitution was promulgated in 1993 by the king, who serves as head of state. The monarchy remains highly revered as a symbol of national unity. Prince Norodom Sihamoni, who has lived abroad for much of his life, succeeded his father, King Norodom Sihanouk, in 2004 after the latter abdicated for health reasons.

The prime minister and cabinet must be approved by a two-thirds vote in the 123-seat National Assembly. Assembly members are elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. The upper house of the bicameral parliament, the Senate, has 61 members, of whom 2 are appointed by the king, 2 are elected by the National Assembly, and 57 are chosen by functional constituencies. Senators serve five-year terms. Voting is tied to a citizen's permanent resident status in a village, township, or urban district, and this status cannot be changed easily. The CPP's strong influence in rural areas, with its presence of party members and control of government officials, gives it an advantage over the opposition SRP, which finds support mainly in urban centers.

Corruption and abuse of power are serious problems that hinder economic development and social stability. Many in the ruling elite abuse their positions for private gain. While economic growth in recent years has been sustained by increased investment in mining, forestry, agriculture, textile manufacturing, tourism, and real estate, these enterprises frequently involve land grabs by powerful politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers. Cambodia was ranked 158 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The government does not fully respect freedom of speech. Media controls are largely focused on local broadcast outlets, which are the primary source of information for most Cambodians. There are many newspapers and private television and radio stations, including several owned and operated by the CPP and opposition parties. There are no restrictions on privately owned satellite dishes receiving foreign broadcasts. Print journalists are somewhat freer to criticize government policies and senior officials, but the print media reach only about 10 percent of the population. Moreover, critical journalists are subject to lawsuits and criminal prosecution. A new penal code passed in October 2009 confirmed defamation as a criminal offense and contained language allowing for liberal interpretation of defamation. Although imprisonment was eliminated as a penalty for defamation in 2006, it can be imposed for spreading false information or insulting public officials. Journalists also remain vulnerable to intimidation and violence, which are rarely punished. A journalists' association claims that at least 10 media workers have been killed by government agents over the past two years, and that there have been no arrests or charges in their cases. The internet is fairly free of government control, but access is largely limited to urban centers. Mobile telephone use, though spreading, is still low because of cost and infrastructure constraints. The majority of Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists and can generally practice their faith freely, but discrimination against ethnic Cham Muslims is widespread. Terrorist attacks by Islamist militants in the broader region in recent years have raised new suspicions about Muslims. The government generally respects academic freedom, although criticism of the state is not tolerated.

Freedoms of association and assembly are respected by the government to a certain degree because of pressure and scrutiny by international donors. Civil society groups work on a broad spectrum of issues and offer social services, frequently with funding from overseas. Those that work on social or health issues generally face less harassment from the state. Public gatherings, protests, and marches occur and are rarely violent. However, the government occasionally uses police and other forces to intimidate participants. Democracy advocates fear that the new penal code, which limits protests to fewer than 20 participants, will allow the government to further restrict freedoms of assembly and speech. The government also appears keen to limit the influence of civil society groups. In 2008, the government proposed a new local associations and nongovernmental organizations law that would require international funds to be channeled through government bodies. The proposed law also imposes complex regulatory requirements on groups and bans activities deemed too political. Toward the end of 2009, Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged to push for its passage by the parliament.

Cambodia has a small number of independent unions. Workers have the right to strike, and many have done so to protest low wages and poor or dangerous working conditions. Lack of resources and experience limits union success in collective bargaining, and union leaders report harassment and physical threats. Labor conditions and workers' ability to hold public protests and bargain collectively reportedly worsened in 2009. Wages have not kept up with rising costs of living, and the global economic slowdown exacerbated the hardships of low-income workers.

The judiciary is marred by inefficiency, corruption, and a lack of independence. There is a severe shortage of lawyers, and the system's poorly trained judges are subject to political pressure from the CPP. Abuse by law enforcement officers, including illegal detention and the torture of suspects, is common. Delays in the judicial process and corruption allow many suspects to escape prosecution. Jails are seriously overcrowded, and inmates often lack sufficient food, water, and health care. Police, soldiers, and government officials are widely believed to tolerate, or be involved in, the trafficking of guns, drugs, and people, as well as other crimes.

The constitution guarantees the right to freedom of travel and movement. The government generally respects this right, but there have been reports of authorities restricting travel for opposition politicians, particularly during election campaigns. Land and property rights are regularly abused for the sake of private development projects. Over the past several years, tens of thousands of people have been forcibly removed – from both rural and urban areas, and with little or no compensation or relocation assistance – to make room for commercial plantations, mine operations, factories, and high-end office and residential developments. High-ranking officials and their family members are frequently involved in these ventures, alongside international investors.

Women suffer widespread economic and social discrimination, lagging behind men in secondary and higher education, and many die from difficulties related to pregnancy and childbirth. Rape and domestic violence are common and are often tied to alcohol and drug abuse by men. Women and girls are trafficked inside and outside of Cambodia for prostitution, and the sex trade has fueled the spread of HIV/AIDS. A 2008 law against human trafficking imposes tougher penalties, but enforcement is said to be weak.

*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

This 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.