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Critics sceptical of NGO's optimistic findings

Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen shake hands in the stairs of the National Assembly in Phnom Penh in 2014 during less politically turbulent times.
Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen shake hands in the stairs of the National Assembly in Phnom Penh in 2014 during less politically turbulent times. Heng Chivoan

Critics sceptical of NGO's optimistic findings

Cambodians were optimistic about the economic and political future of the Kingdom, according to a national survey on citizens' perceptions released on Wednesday by the Asia Foundation, although observers yesterday questioned whether that optimism remains in light of the government’s recent crackdown on the opposition.

The findings in Cambodia: A Survey of Livelihood Strategies and Expectations for the Future, from research conducted between July and September 2015, show that a majority (56.2 per cent) of Cambodians feel the country is “generally headed in the right direction”, a substantial improvement over 2014.

Government dissatisfaction, according to the survey, stems mostly from nationalistic sentiments and economic policy, with the three most displeasing areas being “relations with Vietnam (38.9%), management of natural resources (34.8%), and the fight against corruption (25.6%)”.

What’s more, 55 per cent of respondents predicted that the next elections would be free and fair and yield policies of reform.

However, as noted in the Asia Foundation’s statement announcing the release of the study, this optimism was measured during “a period of political collaboration”.

That brief window of detente between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – often referred to as the “culture of dialogue” – came before the beating of two opposition lawmakers, the ouster of deputy CNRP leader Kem Sokha as National Assembly vice president and the charges issued against CNRP head Sam Rainsy, which are widely believed to be politically motivated.

Those events, according to political analyst Ou Virak, “put the final nail in the coffin of the culture of dialogue”, and “would make the numbers a lot different”.

Optimism over future elections, he noted, may have stemmed from “the opposition raising expectations” of National Election Commission reform, which did not materialise. “It’s the same secretary-general,” he added.

However, Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, held that the optimism evidenced in the survey had nothing to do with cooperation between parties, and everything to do with the strong leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“In this period, Cambodians need a strong man like him,” he said, adding that political pluralism is not necessarily part of the culture, pointing to the failure of Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s government in 1993 – a failure that took place after several days of bloody factional fighting saw Hun Sen installed as the sole head of government by military forces loyal to him.

Siphan went on to criticise the opposition for “pointing fingers” rather than participating in policy-making. “The CNRP uses the same strategy of rebellion and of not participating as the Khmer Rouge in the 1960s and ’70s,” he said.

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