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'Tenuous democracy' blamed for IRI pullout

'Tenuous democracy' blamed for IRI pullout

One of two American pro-democracy organisations training the Sam Rainsy Party has

suspended operations after recent political events, which a spokeswoman said had

turned the state of Cambodian democracy back to "ground zero".

The International Republican Institute (IRI) has been promoting multi-party democracy

in Cambodia for 10 years, training opposition parties in programs such as communication,

leadership and management.

Stacie Loucks, an IRI program officer, said the suspension was brought on by events

that show "how tenuous democracy in Cambodia is".

"It's halted all the progress Cambodia has made towards a multi-party system,

a civil society talking freely and independently," Loucks said.

"It's a huge step back to ground zero."

Loucks said the suspension has been in place since three Sam Rainsy Party members,

including party leader Sam Rainsy, were stripped of parliamentary immunity on February

3.

She also cited Prime Minister Hun Sen's banning of public forums at pagodas as anti-democratic,

when the voice of civil society was becoming more "free and independent".

IRI actions depend greatly on how much breathing space the government allows, she

said.

"We are normally high-profile and outspoken, but we wanted to take a few weeks

to regroup and make sure what we're doing is on the right track."

Loucks said programs will resume within days, with some minor changes. Lisa Gates,

IRI's press secretary in Washington, confirmed the program's return was "imminent".

SRP member Mu Sochua suggested the IRI suspension was because of staff concerns about

their safety.

"The IRI are outspoken in their support for SRP," she said. "Some

have been harassed on the phone."

But Loucks denied any safety issues, saying their concerns were for the safety of

the SRP members who were stripped of their immunity.

She said the democratic situation in Cambodia was very "disconcerting, if you

can still call this a democracy".

"The justice system is a joke. There is no sense of justice or democracy. We

have to start over again," said Loucks.

Government spokesperson Khieu Kannarith acknowledged that democracy and the justice

system in Cambodia were not perfect.

"After decades of fighting, we try to reform to higher standards. We must have

real debate and discussion," he said.

"The Government is showing a willingness to reform the system."

He defended Prime Minister Hun Sen's ban on public forums at pagodas, saying pagodas

are a place for meditation.

"It does not mean we do not allow public forums in other places," he said.

Cambodia is one of few countries in Asia that allow foreigners to stay after insulting

the government, he added.

Despite IRI's temporary closure, Loucks remains hopeful for democracy in Cambodia.

"People are more aware of their rights and of democracy than they were ten years

ago," she said.

"We are here for the long term, as long as we need to be here. We're still going

to stand behind SRP."

The National Democratic Institute, the other American pro-democracy organisation,

continues to run training programs with the opposition party.

Sochua said SRP has not stopped working since their leader fled the country.

The party would continue to boycott parliamentary meetings despite concerns about

rules aimed at "silencing the opposition", she said. National Assembly

President Prince Ranariddh has threatened to cut the pay of assembly members who

continually boycott meetings.

"We have also asked the National Assembly to intervene, so we can visit [SRP

MP] Cheam Channy in prison. So far only his family has been able to."

Cheam Channy was arrested and imprisoned on the evening his parliamentary immunity

was stripped. Along with Channy and Sam Rainsy, SRP member Chea Poch also lost immunity.

The SRP contends that the charges and arrests are illegal. The party is still working

on restoring immunity, Sochua said.

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