The World Bank Country Director recently warned that the incarceration of political
figures could affect Cambodia's ability to attract investors. This comment followed
other similar comments from other critics of the government's actions, none of whom
are in the private sector. Although one can appreciate their concern to help Cambodia
on the road to democracy, their reliance on economic development for their arguments
misses the mark.
Although the business community wants to see human rights flourish, the abuse of
issues of sovereignty, ethnicity, and territoriality in a nascent democracy like
Cambodia are of far greater concern.
The protection of free speech when that speech is irresponsibly exercised has the
potential to unleash passions and prejudices held by many people. Twice in recent
years, in 1998 and 2003, demagogues have incited violence and death through the abuse
of free speech. This possibility worries potential investors far more than the employment
of laws which are an unfortunate residue of the UNTAC era.
From the viewpoint of those who have grown up in politically stable democracies,
the recent legal action appears to be a closing of the political space. However,
as I understand it, the legal actions taken against various figures in recent months
have to do with an attempt to moderate discussion of the border treaty with Vietnam,
a very sensitive issue in Cambodia. The border issue appears to have been pin-pointed
as a potentially incendiary issue, and critics were warned that the libel law would
be employed to control the situation.
If anyone doubts the sensitivity of the border controversy, please consider former
King Sihanouk's reaction to the references to the Lon Nol regime's use of this issue:
a government that tried and condemned him to death in absentia for allegedly ceding
territory to Vietnam.
For the business community, replacement of the UNTAC Criminal Law has long been a
priority. I have spoken at many fora over the years regarding the abuse of the notorious
"breach of trust" provision. UNTAC, in its infinite wisdom, drafted a libel
law with criminal penalties. This law can and should be changed, and the donor community
should be encouraged to continue to reform the criminal and civil laws.
But it places donors in an awkward position to encourage the government to ignore
laws on a case-by-case basis. Government officials respond by stating that this violates
the principle of rule of law.
Rather than pass special laws for potentially dangerous situations like the recent
border treaty, the government relied on a law imposed on them by UNTAC. The law is
antiquated and needs to be replaced. But donors should be encouraging moderation
on those who raise potentially inflammatory issues while, at the same time, pushing
for critically needed legal and judicial reform.
The government clearly links political stability with economic development. For example,
the Prime Minister devoted considerable time last October at the Government-Private
Sector Forum to discuss the Vietnam border issue. He did so again this week at the
The business community is not indifferent to the democratic progress being achieved
in Cambodia. For example, we have applauded the improvement in the three national
elections held since 1993, with steadily declining violence and greater accountability
associated with each successive election.
But democracy, and economic development, cannot occur if there is chaos and instability.
The government has a responsibility to maintain order, for the benefit of all citizens,
and in the early stages of democracy that may not be compatible with giving free
rein to those who might abuse free speech.
Bretton G Sciaroni - Phnom Penh