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Kingdom 'not free' in 2008

A REPORT released Thursday by the US-based international watchdog organisation Freedom House rated Cambodia as "not free" and claimed that the government had only "paid lip service" to its stated goals of combating corruption and improving governance.

In its 2009 Freedom in the World report, an annual comparison of global political rights and civil liberties, the organisation said Cambodia had earned its rating due to endemic corruption, free speech restrictions and the lack of an independent judiciary in the Kingdom.

"Cambodia is not an electoral democracy," the report stated.

"Prime Minister Hun Sen and the [Cambodian People's Party] dominate national and local politics through their control of the security forces, officials at all levels of government and the state-owned media."

The report also paints a picture of a judiciary "marred by inefficiency and corruption", and claims corruption and abuse of power by high-ranking government officials have "significantly hindered" economic growth.

"Although the economy has been growing as a result of increased investments ... these enterprises frequently involve land grabs by the political elite, top bureaucrats and the military," the report states.

Each year, Freedom House designates countries as "free", "partly free" or "not free". Except for 1993 and 1994, Freedom House has rated Cambodia as "not free" every year since the report was launched in 1973.

Thun Saray, president of the local rights group Adhoc, said the report generally described the situation in Cambodia accurately, though he said the static "not free" rating did not capture the dynamic of transition the country is still experiencing.

Referring to the recent crackdown on government critics, he said Cambodia was certainly in a period of decline.

But he said history showed a pattern of ups and downs.

"Sometimes we see the political space widen, and sometimes we see it narrow down," he told the Post.

"The improvement is that people are more aware of their rights than ever before."

He added: "In a transitional period there are always struggles between democratic and authoritarian forces, and sometimes the authoritarian forces prevail."

A transitional period
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said he had not seen the Freedom House report, but that Cambodia still faces many challenges.

He said the current government had experienced peace and stability only in the past 11 years, providing a narrow window for reform.

"We understand that we do have some flaws, but [I would like to] remind them that we are still in a stage of reform and development," he said.

"Thank God the CPP is still strong, to keep this country at [the stage] where everyone can enjoy work and enjoy seeing human rights and development."

The new Freedom House report echoes an earlier press freedom report from the organisation, which ranked Cambodia 132nd among 195 countries surveyed.

In its 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, global corruption monitor Transparency International listed Cambodia as the 166th most-corrupt country out of 180 nations surveyed.

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