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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Review 2008: Two steps forward, one back

Review 2008: Two steps forward, one back


Cambodia continued to emerge last year as a bright spot in a region beset by turmoil, but the Kingdom remains plagued by the problems of its past and faces a shakey economic future

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Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, greets Cambodian Muslims in this file photo.

IT was not the best of years, it was not the worst of years.

In 2008 several major developments took place in Cambodia that can be viewed as part of larger trends in the Kingdom's political and economic life, one of which has been unfolding for almost three decades.

National parliamentary elections took place on July 27 that saw the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) win a landslide victory.

Irregularities and cries of foul play included, nobody was surprised.

Requiring only a 50-percent-plus-1 majority to form a government, it was obvious to most observers before the election that the CPP would be able to form a government on its own, something it had not been able to do in the 1993, 1998 and 2003 polls.

The victory for Hun Sen caps a long, bare-knuckle process of political consolidation that gives the prime minister and his allies total control of all principal organs of state, including the National Assembly, the judiciary, the executive branch, the police and the military, from the national level down to provincial and commune levels as well. (This level of control has existed for years, but now it's official.)

The elections were also the final crushing defeat for the various political and military forces arrayed against the CPP during their struggles in the 1980s and 1990s, when three separate political movements and their attendant armed forces sought to oust the ruling party from power either by force or at the ballot box.

With the abysmal showing in this year's polls by Royalist political elements, former first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and his erstwhile Funcinpec allies have become a spent political force, with supporters scrambling to join the CPP, angling for a paid position on the Royal Palace payroll or leaving politics altogether.

The CPP literally reigns supreme.

The Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) remains a legal and legitimate opposition party with an increased number of seats in Parliament.  They have made gains in each election since 1998. Whether this will enable the party to translate concerns over the quality of governance on a range of issues into tangible policy outcomes is open to question. 


What's clear is that the SRP has been and will remain a vocal reflection of the ills that continue to plague the Kingdom, from widespread corruption, impunity, poverty and income disparities, to dysfunctional public services, human trafficking and land disputes, among others - all issues that the government says it has been, and continues to be, aware of, and has been, and will continue, to remain committed to resolving.
As somewhat of an adjunct of the CPP's victory over its enemies, the Khmer Rouge tribunal proceeded slowly in 2008, with the process marred by lingering accusations of corruption in the form of kickbacks and nepotism. This complicated additional requests for funding from international donors, an issue that is still outstanding and which keeps the KRT on a short budgetary leash. 

On the good news side, it is expected that the trial for Duch, the former director of the S-21 detention centre, may begin early next year.

Sources say that information that will become public during this trial will lend credence to the supposition that the tribunal is worth the expense.

On the economic and social development front, Cambodia's aid juggernaut continues apace, with foreign donors pledging more than US$950 million at this year's donor conference in early December, an increase of almost $300 million from pledges made in 2007. This international vote of confidence in Cambodia's ability to use donor funds wisely enables the Kingdom to remain one of the highest per capita aid recipients in the world.

For several years now, some Cambodia watchers have said that with the current level of political stability and consistently high economic growth rates, the only thing that could derail the continued development of the economy and the contentious and snaillike process of reform would be external factors beyond Cambodia's control.

The shoe dropped on this front in 2008.

First, the decision by Unesco in July to list Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage Site devolved into a military standoff between Cambodian and Thai forces on the border surrounding the temple. The dispute has simmered since and remains unresolved. 

Observers on this side of the border (and internationally outside of Thailand) see the dispute as a reflection of the rancorous state of Thai domestic politics, with Cambodia being used as a fall guy.

 However, the temple fracas did produce one interesting and extremely rare phenomena. For the first time in living memory, the entire Cambodian population was unanimously and fiercely united on a single issue. For those who have watched Cambodians kill one another for much of the last 40 years, it was a welcome and inspiring sight.

But Cambodia has had to pay a price for Thai domestic turmoil. Witness the closing of Bangkok's international airport by anti-Thaksin supporters and the related cancellations of hotel reservations in Siem Reap. Sources say some hotels are now struggling with single-digit occupancy rates - and this during the so-called high season.

This situation has been drastically compounded by the American-led global financial and economic meltdown, the full effects of which have yet to be felt worldwide.

World Bank economic growth forecasts for Cambodia have already been dropped to 4.9 percent for 2009. This is in contrast to an average of 11.1 percent for the years 2004 to 2007.

With an economy overly reliant on garment exports to the US and tourism arrivals, the question on many people's minds is, How bad is it going to get?

Need a New Year's resolution?  Tighten your belt!



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