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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The year of darkness; the year of light

The year of darkness; the year of light

K hmer Institute of Democracy director Lao Mong Hay gives his thoughts on how the history books will judge the events of 1995 the year of the eclipse.

IN October 1995 the path of the total solar eclipse passed through Cambodia's most famous ancient monument, Angkor Wat, where people had flocked to from all over the world. The cosmic events had a wider aptness - reflecting the shadows of doubt which appeared over Cambodia's future during 1995 - but did not totally obscure rays of hope and brightness too.

The year began with a rice crop failure for the second year in succession due to floods and drought. This hit the country hard, and the Government deserved much praise for its efforts to avert famine and starvation.

Cambodia secured continued foreign assistance through the meeting in March of the International Committee on the Reconstruction of Cambodia (ICORC) in Paris, amid fears that the sacking of the outspoken dissident and internationally-respected Member of the National Assembly (MP) and Finance Minister, Sam Rainsy, might have damaged the international community's sympathy toward Cambodia.

The Government continued to rehabilitate and reconstruct the country.

It worked to reform the army, the public administration, the judiciary, the educational system, and other sectors.

It lent cooperation and support to all international organizations and non-governmental organizations in their efforts to help rebuild the country.

Individual leaders sponsored community development projects, the most prominent of which are several personally sponsored by the Second Prime Minister, Samdech Hun Sen, in Kraingyov district and other areas in Kandal province.

All these efforts were and still are praiseworthy.

Internationally, Cambodia reached out to the outside world with its preparations for the membership of the Association of Southeast-Asian Nations (ASEAN), its participation in the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Columbia, and with official visits by Foreign Minister Ung Hout to many countries.

The King visited some neighboring countries, while overseas Foreign Ministers and trade delegations also came to Phnom Penh.

Cambodia was gaining a place in the international community.

However, beneath this surface of positive developments, an undercurrent of turmoil developed. This not only disturbed that surface but raised doubts as to whether Cambodia was sincere in honoring its obligations under the Paris Peace Agreements of October 1991 and other international documents, and its own Constitution.

All these legal documents have clearly determined the system of government of the country, that of a pluralist liberal democracy with respect for human rights and the rule of law. There were, however, fears that Cambodia might abandon this system and revert to its old repressive regime.

Sam Rainsy, after reported clashes with FUNCINPEC president Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was expelled from that party for having refused to toe the party's line.

The court of law refused to adjudicate in his case, and, at the request of his party, he was expelled from the National Assembly altogether. This retribution of a public figure known to be outspoken against corruption in government circles and to champion democracy, human rights and the rule of law, caused serious concerns and criticisms both inside and outside Cambodia. There were representations about the illegality of the measure. Government leaders dismissed all criticisms from abroad as interference in the internal affairs of sovereign Cambodia.

Cambodia's above-mentioned obligations were simply overlooked, and the democratic values enshrined in the country's Constitution were now interpreted as Western values with little relevance to Cambodian society.

There was talk about the 1998 elections, with the leaders of the major parties agreeing to remain in coalition to fight those elections and to continue to run the country. Hun Sen made it known that he intended to remain in power until the year 2010, if the Cambodian people continued to vote for him. All the major parties seemed to start electioneering - if not begin the electoral campaign itself - with party offices being spruced up and party leaders making efforts to please voters.

Government leaders made Machiavellian moves to consolidate their respective powers.

Hun Sen proved to be the most astute in taking advantage of any opportunity offered him. He was the most outspoken over the split within the BLDP and was the first to publicly support the Ieng Mouly faction, against the Son Sann faction which was seen as being too critical of government policies and, perhaps, of having antipathy toward Hun Sen. He also offered his support to the League of Cambodian Journalists, a group that broke away from the Khmer Journalists Association which, too, was seen as being critical of the Government.

Other leaders seemed to follow Hun Sen's lead.

Opposition groups encountered one obstacle after another in the exercise of their constitutional rights. They were subjected to violence, threats and intimidation.

Son Sann was denied authorization to hold his party's congress. And, in the blackest event of 1995, his office and his followers staying at a Buddhist monastery had grenades thrown at them.

A thorough police investigation was promised; the culprits remain at large today.

Journalists accused of insulting government leaders received harsh sentences from the courts.

The office of a newspaper whose articles were critical of Hun Sen's development project in Kraingyov was attacked by a group of peasants from that district. There was no official condemnation of the attack and indeed Hun Sen said it was justified.

Such violence undermined the rule of law and caused fear among the population. One had to look over one's shoulders first before one could talk, and many were subdued. A police state was reemerging.

Government stability may be the winner, but many wondered at what price?

Criticism or disagreement was in danger of being seen as opposition bordering on treason. Even, it seemed, in the one place where open debate should most legitimately be held - the National Assembly.

In 1995, MPs reportedly attracted death threats, their requests for information about the sale of national resources were ignored, and they were put on notice that they could lose their seats by means other than an election by voters.

Unanimous votes were held in the National Assembly, without even a single abstention, on issues which MPs, privately, were reportedly divided.

Rainsy exercised his constitutional rights to form a political party in November, but his Khmer Nation Party was denied official recognition and ordered to close its office and stop its activities.

Meanwhile, at least one of its members was killed in mysterious circumstances. Others received threats and intimidation.

Some days after the launching of this party, troops and tanks were sent to surround Prince Norodom Sirivudh, MP, Secretary-General of FUNCINPEC, the victorious party at the last elections, former Foreign Minister, and half brother of the King of Cambodia.

Sirivudh is a close friend of Rainsy's, and was said to differ from Ranariddh and to pose a threat to the latter's leadership of the party. Sirivudh is known as a strong supporter of democracy and human rights.

After a local newspaper reported a plot to assassinate Hun Sen, Sirivudh was accused of plotting to overthrow the Government.

Because of his position, of his arrest and detention reportedly not in conformity with legal procedures, of the reported threat used for the lifting of his immunity, and of the National Assembly's questionable way of lifting that immunity, Sirivudh's case attracted a lot more attention, concern and criticism around the world, especially from the West, about democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Cambodia.

There was a hint of the possibility of the United States refusing to grant most favored nation status to Cambodia because of human rights violations.

There was a public demonstration mainly by Cambodians living in France against Sirivudh's arrest and detention. France was reported to have attached the condition of Sirivudh's release to its funding of a project.

Samdech Hun Sen reacted angrily and, in a speech in the countryside, threatened to call on the Cambodian people to stage demonstrations against Western embassies, especially against the French and American embassies. He reminded the nation of its past ability to live without Western assistance.

A section of the press echoed Hun Sen's statement and prepared public opinion to support it. There were fears though that Cambodia might be seen as biting the hands that feed it, and might be retracting to its old shell and international isolation, when its neighbor, Vietnam, was making relentless efforts to normalize relations with America and other Western countries and get the most of this normalization.

Not only BLDP but also FUNCINPEC were split, and FUNCINPEC lost two of its prominent members.

According to Hun Sen, these two parties were "ruined". As they were crippled, only Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) remained strong and solid. His performance consolidated his position in the CPP.

Hun Sen became de facto the paramount leader of Cambodia.

The King of Cambodia, His Majesty Norodom Sihanouk Varman, bowed to this reality, gave Caesar what is Caesar's, and, in order to save his half-brother from the prison life or death, asked Hun Sen to allow Sirivudh to go into exile in France. Hun Sen agreed and Sirivudh departed on 21 December.

These developments were serious setbacks for democratization in Cambodia, but this democratization will continue when the three sets of criteria determining Cambodia's system of government remain - when FUNCINPEC, BLDP and other parties are still there, when the Government is no longer capable of preventing people from receiving information from independent media, when the tragic past continues to haunt Cambodians - and, above all, when the will to be free still remains strong in the hearts of many Cambodians.

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