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Comfrel executive director Koul Panha
Comfrel executive director Koul Panha speaks to the media following a roundtable discussion on the state of Cambodian democracy yesterday in Phnom Penh. Ethan Harfenist

Democracy ‘dragging’: NGO

While bipartisanship and democratic governance appear to be slightly on the upswing in Cambodia, an annual report by local election watchdog Comfrel says democracy in the Kingdom is still dragging its feet, often taking two steps backward for every one step forward.

“Democratisation in Cambodia is on a slow path,” Comfrel executive director Koul Panha said Tuesday at a roundtable discussion on the organisation’s annual democracy report. “In 2014, there was some progress, [but] there are lots of crises and barriers slowing down democratisation.”

Utilising empirical data and a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods, Comfrel identified a number of issues holding back Cambodia’s transition to a fully formed democracy.

The report comes on the heels of King Norodom Sihamoni signing off on a pair of controversial election-related laws recently passed by the National Assembly. Although the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) said the laws would provide for free and fair elections, NGOs have slammed both parties for acting in their own political interests and keeping the public in the dark.

Comfrel’s report points the finger at the usual cast of bad characters – cronyism, nepotism, corruption and lack of transparency, to name a few. But the group also states that the political upheaval following the 2013 national election, in which the opposition’s boycott of parliament led to months of mass street demonstrations, crackdowns by security forces and the death of at least five people, “paralysed the democratisation process in 2014”.

The freedom to peacefully assemble was intensely curbed for roughly a year, and although the government permitted some demonstrations, Comfrel wrote that “dozens” of assemblies by political activists critical of the ruling CPP, trade unions and civil society actors were shut down by authorities in 2014.

Additionally, Comfrel said the Kingdom’s judicial system was a “weak link in the governance system,” remaining in the vise-like grip of the executive branch despite several laws passed to guarantee its independence. The group added that political influence still regularly creeps into Cambodia’s courts 20 years after the nation adopted a liberal democratic constitution.

“We found that the government’s institutions have a serious illness – especially the judicial system. After that, it’s the police… But this is denied by the government,” said Preap Kol, the executive director of Transparency International Cambodia. “I’m afraid the illness will become a cancer that can’t be treated. We must heal them, or face a serious situation.”

Other issues touched on in the paper included concerns about women’s representation in politics, the misuse of state resources and human rights abuses by the government.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed Comfrel’s findings, accusing the organisation of criticising Cambodian politics while being bankrolled by outsiders.

“There’s a hidden agenda behind it, as this is an NGO is funded by foreigners,” he said. “They say bad things about Cambodian democracy, so we don’t listen.”



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