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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Letter to the Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh,..

Letter to the Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh,..

T he following is an open letter to the Prime Minister Prince Norodom

Ranariddh, from Gay J. McDougall, Executive Director of the

International Human Rights Law Group, Washington D.C.

In May 1993

more than ninety percent of the Cambodian electorate cast ballots in the United

Nations-sponsored national elections. This huge turn-out, in the face of a

widespread campaign of violence and expected Khmer Rouge attacks, astonished

many observers who believed that the Cambodian people were not ready for


It is therefore surprising, and saddening, to find the leader

of the party which won those elections reaching the same conclusion as those

mistaken pundits. Your statement of "Vital Issues", dated August 3, 1995, seems

to discount the democratic aspirations of millions of Cambodians by asserting

that for the "farmers who till the land," democracy is "just a phrase to be

talked about in idle gossip." These are the very people who elected Funcinpec to

lead the country. One is reduced to conjecture whether their mandate is no

longer important, or necessary, or required in the future.

You state that

"democracy in the Cambodian sense" means "food for the people's stomach[s],

shelter, education, medical facilities, and basic amenities and the freedom to

express and move freely." Of course, for the hungry, the day-to-day struggle for

survival will always be of greater concern than abstract freedoms. But this is

no justification for a society to suspend democratic freedoms and human rights.

Social problems can only be solved if they are brought to light, which is best

accomplished in an open society.

You assert that "When the rural poor

people have sufficient food, shelter, education and basic amenities, then

democracy can be preached and instilled in abundance." Why wait? A government

can best contribute to development through intelligent economic management,

promoting the rule of law, and minimizing corruption, not through the

suppression of basic democratic rights. Political oppression in Singapore,

Malaysia and Indonesia did not cause economic growth - otherwise countries like

Burma and North Korea would also be economic tigers. Cambodia's own recent

history should dispel you of any such authoritarian illusions.

You state

that "discipline is more essential in our society than democracy, though they

[the people] have a need of both." Discipline can mean many things. Inculcating

in society respect for law and order is a priority for any government. But such

a goal is impossible when those empowered to enforce the law, the police and the

military, are among its principle transgressors, and can commit crimes with

virtual impunity.

Discipline has also been defined by certain Asian

leaders as restrictions on those who criticize the government. It is hard to see

why Cambodia would want to follow this example. One of the most impressive

developments here in recent years has been the re-emergence of civil society. It

would b e a grave blow to Cambodia's international image were the government to

repress those very bodies - the independent press, local development

organizations and human rights groups - which engage in the open exchange of

ideas and information (including criticism of the government) and thus

contribute to Cambodia's development.

Your justification is that

democracy must be limited "when there are many elements within our society,

notably the Khmer Rouge, to take advantage of the democracy issue and turn the

country into another killing field." Indeed, you seem to suggest that those

persons who advocate greater democracy in Cambodia today are akin to Khmer Rouge

ideologues who "talked about elimination of human rights [violations] and

promised the world to the peasants."

Violent groups feed off of

government oppression, rarely democracy. A Cambodian government that respects

human rights and has the support of the people is the best insurance that the

nightmare years of Khmer Rouge rule will never return. The significant decline

of the Khmer Rouge since the 1993 elections can be attributed not to the

suppression of rights (or to military victories), but to the formation of a

government legitimate in the eyes of the Cambodian people. It would seem unwise

to tamper with that legitimacy.

"Preachers of democracy," you state,

"must be aware that they would not be able to speak publicly and openly without

fear or favor if the country had no democracy or human rights." Unfortunately,

the open society that has emerged in Cambodia in recent years is rapidly

closing. Only the bravest Cambodian journalists and social critics are undaunted

by the threats, arrests, murders, fines and prison sentences handed down on

those who have publicly expressed their views. Recent developments, including

the oppressive new press law, provide little reason for


Democracy is not a threat to Cambodia, but a fragile

opportunity. Two days after "Vital Issues" was issued, six persons were arrested

in Phnom Penh for the simple act of tying statements to balloons and setting

them aloft, The statements contained common criticisms of the government and

suggestions for reform. The six, including four balloon vendors, were charged

with incitement to violence and face up to five years in prison.

As Prime

Minister of one of the world's nascent democracies, you are the voice upon which

Cambodia's international reputation will stand. Through words and deeds you can

be an advocate for human rights and an open society - or you can join those

leaders who maintain that their own people, and Asians generally, are not

entitled to the same fundamental rights as people elsewhere. The choice is


- August 21, 1995.



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