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Cambodian People's Party must not fear reform

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Cambodian People’s Party supporters campaign in Phnom Penh during the lead-up to commune elections in May. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post

The governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) appears unmoved by the recent merger of the Kingdom’s two main opposition parties, now going by the name of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Prime Minister Hun Sen recently dismissed the merger as “a storm in a teacup”.

Teacups, however, have a tendency to spill, and it is clear from the Prime Minister’s comments about the merger that he is watching developments very closely. Neither impressed by, nor worried about, the unification, but certainly paying attention.

And he has every right to be doing so: with the CPP winning fewer than half the number of eligible voters in 2008, and boasting a rogues’ gallery of human-rights abuses on its watch, there will be a fair number of votes up for grabs next July.

The merger comes at a time of growing disaffection and desperation on the part of many marginalised and disadvantaged groups who have been denied justice through the court system and who have instead taken to the streets in protest.

Such people include farmers, the urban poor, garment-factory workers, human-rights defenders and activists, and indigenous groups.

They have suffered forced land evictions, violent suppression of peaceful protests, unsolved – and barely investigated – political killings, judicial intimidation, rampant corruption, a widening gap between rich and poor, an ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression and civil-society space, and many other social and political ills.

Despite such failings, however, the CPP can stem the tide – and even reverse it – if it undertakes some key reforms.

It has accrued some degree of credit over the years for bringing peace to Cambodia, and for presiding over burgeoning economic development.

But it needs to stop people losing faith in the party and the system, by giving people a reason to trust the key institutions that determine their lives and their futures.

First, a complete reform of the judiciary is long overdue. For people to trust the government, they have to know they can rely on the courts – and other coflict-resolution mechanisms – to find just and fair solutions to any legal disputes, especially when land and livelihoods are at stake.

Garment workers and land-eviction victims take to the streets in protest because they know they will not receive fair treatment in court. The judiciary needs to be fully independent of the executive and free from bias and corruption.

Second, the National Election Committee (NEC), widely derided as politically biased towards the CPP, needs to be overhauled.

A reformed NEC would increase people’s confidence in the whole election process.

The CPP has the power to win the 2013 general election in a proper fashion, but it has to trust in its strengths and give the people reason to trust in it – which necessitates a fully independent NEC.

A free and fair election is the right forum for those who have suffered to air their grievances –a pattern the vast majority of democracies follow.

The benefit is that people will not be frustrated into launching public protests, such as those that triggered the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia and other countries, or even in Burma, the Philippines and Indonesia not so long ago, but will wait until the national elections.

They will trust in the ballot box and will put their faith in the strongest player.

Third, the government needs to focus on reforming the security sector: far too many police, military police and full military officials are involved in land evictions and other incidents that serve to stain Cambodia’s name, promoting the impression that our nation is still on an internal-war footing – an image that is at least 15 years out of date.

Military and enforcement agencies should be reduced in size, allocated proper roles that serve the interests of the country, and controlled centrally by the government rather than by private interests.

People need to trust, rather than fear, the Kingdom’s security forces.

The Cambodian People’s Party can win the 2013 election fairly and squarely if it is brave enough to reform some key policies, institutions and government agencies.

Once it lets go of its fear of reform and begins to think strategically about the future of this country and its own part in that future, it can really begin to flourish.

The alternative is to continue to blunder towards growing civil unrest, a further erosion of trust in the status quo, and national elections that will either hand the initiative to the new opposition or require bloody repression. Now that would be more than a storm in a teacup.

Ou Virak is president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights

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