Torrential rainfall during this year’s rainy season caused the worst flooding to hit the Kingdom in decades. Flooding began in the upper Mekong in mid-July then expanded to provinces around the Tonle Sap Lake in September and October. About 250 people were killed, more than 250,000 were displaced, more than 1.6 million people were directly affected and at least 10 per cent of the nation’s rice fields were ruined or damaged. Although the government did not declare a national emergency, aid workers say villages in some provinces will take two to three years to recover.
Government officials expect to spend nearly US$200 million to repair infrastructure, including roads, bridges and schools. Climate change experts believe that such disasters will increase in frequency and severity. This will require improved flood management, enhanced early warning and detection systems, and the implementation of risk reduction strategies, they say.
Firefight at Preah Vihear
Since the 1962 International Court of Justice ruling that the Preah Vihear temple, situated along the Thai-Cambodian border, belonged to Cambodia, the two neighbours have frequently bickered over the rights to the Hindu shrine. In early 2011, bickering turned to artillery fire as fighting between the two countries erupted near the UNESCO world heritage site, displacing tens of thousands of villagers and leaving at least 28 dead.
In July, the ICJ intervened, establishing a provisional demilitarised zone around the area and ordering the deployment of independent border observers from Indonesia. Meanwhile, the July election of the Puea Thai party in Thailand was seen as a positive sign that an agreement between the two countries might be reached. At a General Border Committee meeting on December 22, both countries agreed to withdraw troops from the disputed territory, however, to this date, no definitive timeline for withdrawal has been established.
Khmer Rouge tribunal
November marked the opening of one of the most complex international trials in recent memory, when Case 002, against the surviving senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, got under way. Earlier in the year, the court was rocked by the shock resignation of German investigating judge Siegfried Blunk, who cited perceptions of government interference and corruption as his motivation. Days before Case 002 began, former social action minister Ieng Thirith was declared unfit to stand trial as she most likely suffers from Alzheimer’s. Judges ordered her conditional release; however, this decision was later reversed. The three leaders charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions are ex-president Khieu Samphan, former foreign affairs minister Ieng Sary and one-time chief ideologue Nuon Chea, known as “Brother Number 2”.
A reported nine domestic migrant workers died in Malaysia this year, revealing the dark underbelly of an industry rife with serious rights abuses, including slave labour working conditions, debt bondage and torture. As these cases began to emerge, and as a handful of labour-recruitment firms were raided and found to be recruiting underage workers and at times, forcibly detaining them, Prime Minister Hun Sen attempted to crack down on the industry by issuing a directive in October that prevented recruitment firms from sending domestic workers to Malaysia.
A loophole in the ban, however, exempted trainees with existing contracts and travel documents. And while the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies pledged to regulate itself and avoid exploiting the loophole, many firms flouted the measure. Rights workers and lawmakers are now calling for stricter regulations of the industry and a bilateral agreement with Malaysia that would guarantee the protection of workers.
Boeung Kak lake
On August 11, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a sub-decree that set aside 12.44 hectares of land around Boeung Kak lake for the onsite relocation of families who remained living at the lakeside, following a funding freeze on new country projects by the World Bank.
It was thought that the sub-decree would spell the beginning of the end of a land dispute more than four years in the making. In 2007, local firm Shukaku Inc – owned by ruling party senator Lao Meng Khin – was granted a 99-year lease to develop 133 hectares of land around the lake in the capital’s Daun Penh district.
Rights groups estimated that the project would ultimately displace about 4,000 families, and years of protests by affected residents ensued. Following the premier’s announcement of the resettlement deal, a bloody forced eviction in September left eight families without homes, several people injured, and one young activist beaten into unconsciousness. In December, the government finally began issuing land titles to families, leaving many hopeful that 2012 could be the last chapter in this long-running land dispute.
More than a dozen mass fainting incidents at garment and footwear factories raised questions about working conditions for the nearly 400,000 workers responsible for about 85 per cent of the Kingdom’s exports. More than 1,500 workers were reported to have fainted in the incidents, which sparked investigations by the labour ministry, the International Labor Organisation and brand name manufacturers such as Adidas and H&M. The investigations found numerous causes for the fainting incidents, ranging from poor ventilation and toxic chemicals to “mass psychogenic illness” and unhealthy lifestyles. Union leaders, however, pointed to low wages and excessive overtime, explaining that the workers, primarily young women from villages, were supporting entire families on a basic wage of US$61 a month. In November, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the workers would receive a health bonus of $5 a month beginning this month.
Moek Dara trial
The Anti-Corruption Unit’s highest-profile case to date unfolded in 2011, beginning with the January arrest of Moek Dara, then-secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, and six of his associates. The former drug czar was arrested based on testimony from provincial police chiefs in Banteay Meanchey, who had also been apprehended. The disgraced former three-star general stands accused of taking bribes of as much as US$140,000 in exchange for releasing dealers from prison and pocketing drugs from raids. A verdict in the trial, which commenced in November and wrapped up two weeks ago, is expected in January. Rights workers welcomed the arrests, which they hope are a sign of the potential of the year-old ACU in combating corruption.
Stock market debut
After years of planning and delays, the Cambodian Stock Exchange launched in mid-July, giving the Kingdom the distinction of hosting one of the world’s tiniest stock exchanges. Government officials, academics and investors praise the bourse as a way to improve accounting standards and financial transparency, while boosting the country’s economic growth. However, despite these lofty expectations, not a single company has yet been listed, mostly because of the challenge of complying with the exchange’s necessary accounting standards. Officials expect three state-owned entities to list shortly – Telecom Cambodia, Sihanoukville Autonomous Port, and the Phnom Penh Water Supply – but they have been repeating that since July, with little to show. Minister of Economy and Finance Keat Chhon said in October that he expects stocks to begin trading in early 2012, but given the delays that have plagued the bourse thus far, this prediction warrants a fair amount of scepticism.
NGO draft law
Prime Minister Hun Sen ended 2011 affirming his commitment to a draft law aimed at regulating associations and NGOs. The premier said he was willing to wait until 2014 to pass the law, if that was what was needed to reach a consensus on the controversial legislation. First circulated last December, the draft law has undergone multiple revisions over the past 12 months, and drawn sharp criticism from domestic and international observers concerned about the law’s registration requirements, appeals avenues and the government’s ability to use it to shut down associations and NGOs. The fourth generation of the law was introduced last month and while markedly different than its predecessors, civil society organizations remain unsatisfied. Of chief concern is that the law still effectively mandates registration for NGOs and associations, despite the fact that a Ministry of Interior official announced in September that registration would not be compulsory.
Chea Sim adviser arrests
Scandal rocked Senate President Chea Sim’s office when four advisers were arrested in September for using their close connections with the senator to defraud at least 51 companies on phony humanitarian and infrastructure projects totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. The four high-ranking officials – protocol chief Pheng Kunthea Borey, Lieutenant General Ponlok Ho, Police Lieutenant General Chan Kosal and former Cabinet member Khieu Bora – were tried last month and each sentenced to jail terms of between three and four years, despite denying any allegations of wrongdoing. Some opposition observers believe the case is really a political purge of disloyal factions within the CPP, of which Chea Sim is a member.