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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Comment: Govt puts rights in jeopardy

Comment: Govt puts rights in jeopardy

T he country is in danger of quickly losing hard-won freedoms, warns Julio A.


On May 23, 1993 after more than a decade of repression and

intimidation, Cambodians put their trust in the secret ballot in an election

organized and supervised by international monitors. In so doing, the majority of

Cambodians, for the first time in many years, expressed their desire to live in

a democratic society and spoke up by themselves instead of being told what to

say by their rulers or being spoken for by foreign sponsors.


proclamation of the new Constitution and the re-establishment of the Monarchy on

Sept 24 1993 was the beginning of what many believed was a new era of peace and

democracy but there are signs that point to a significant lack of understanding

and different interpretations of what democracy and human rights are all


One of the basic premises of the Paris Agreements of October 1991

was to ensure that the people "shall have the right to determine their own

political future through the free and fair election of a Constitutional

Assembly, which will draft and approve a new Cambodian Constitution, and

transform itself into a Legislative Assembly, which will create the new

Cambodian Government."

The accords also said: "All persons in Cambodia

and all Cambodian refugees and displaced persons shall enjoy the rights and

freedoms embodies in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other

relevant international human rights instruments."

Eight months after the

elections, it is disturbing to hear senior ministers of the party which won the

elections, FUNCINPEC [on a platform which promised "full respect for human

rights and a democratic future for Cambodia"], state that "Cambodia is not ready

for freedom of the press!" or that "there are too many demonstrations and we

need to get rid of them!". It is even more disturbing to learn that the Royal

Government placed a ban, a few weeks ago, on news of a demonstration supporting

its own Minister of Finance!

One can well understand that these ministers

are starting to be annoyed by the constant criticism the Royal Government is

receiving in the local press and that the amount of demonstrations appears to

have increased in recent weeks but they must also understand that these actions

are part of the process of building a democratic society.

In a recent

message to Cambodians from his sick-bed in Beijing, His Majesty the King said:

"Do not forget that possessing one of the most democratic constitutions in the

world, you are the masters of the fate of Kampuchea and the masters of your own

destiny at present and in future.

Your representatives, members of the

National Assembly and the members of the Royal Government of Cambodia have, in

the Throne Hall and in front of the Svetchhatr (Sacred umbrella) made a solemn,

long and detailed oath concerning the responsibilities they must accomplish, the

work they must undertake and the efforts they must deploy at the service of the

Motherland, the nation, religion and the people. Consequently, it suffices that

they act always in accordance with their oath for our people and our Nation to

be assured that their higher interest are served with faithfulness and

efficiency. But our citizens of both sexes who do not possess any legislative,

executive, judicial, military nor administrative powers must not forget that our

constitution recognizes all the freedom and rights which ensure to them a

permanent protection. Our citizens of both sexes can and must keep close

relations with their representative, who legislate, govern and rule. If they

have problems, our citizens have the power and the duty to get in touch with the

appropriate authorities in order to solve in fairness and in the best possible

way their difficulties."

This timely royal message which encourages and

underlines the importance of civic participation does not seem to have been read

or appreciated by some of the Ministers of the Royal Government which appear

rather eager to curtail the just-acquired rights of the people. It would be a

fundamental mistake if the voices of those within FUNCINPEC advocating the

curtailment of the freedom of the press were to be heard, as they would lead the

party to political oblivion.

What FUNCINPEC strategists need to

understand is that the party that came second in the election has since employed

its most trusted instruments - violence and deception to throttle the government

and derail the transition of democracy. The hard-liners' strategy is clearly to

retain power without overthrowing the new government. FUNCINPEC and the moderate

elements of the CPP will be successful in their monumental task of rebuilding

Cambodia and attracting foreign investors to the country, as well as

international assistance, only if they continue the protect and nurture the

newly-acquired rights of the people.

Freedom of the press is a right but

newspaper proprietors, editors and journalists should be fully aware that in

order to enjoy such a right they also have responsibilities. Unfortunately, we

often find that they seem unaware or unwilling to discharge their

responsibilities in order to enjoy the right to a free press. It is, therefore,

important that reporters strive for accuracy and fairness when criticizing the

government of the day and that proprietors do not intervene and push their own

barrows in their newspapers.

Above all, they must not forget that

democracy is the most widely-admired type of political system but also the most

difficult to maintain. Democracy has certain paradoxes or contradictions and the

tensions these cause are not easy to reconcile, thus every country that is on

the way to achieving democratization must find its own way to doing


For Cambodians, who have known more than their share of wars,

revolutions and invasions, last year's peaceful vote for change was their finest

and most courageous hour. But did the elections of May 1993 automatically

convert the country to a democratic system and is it securely on the road to




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