John C Brown wonders why the party doesn't redefine the rules of current
politics in Phnom Penh's corridors of power.
Dr Milton Osborne, the noted
South-East Asian Historian, visited Phnom Penh recently - and for the first time
since 1981. His summary observation: "everything seems to be on hold. It is as
if everyone is waiting for something to happen."
The state of law-making
in Cambodia indicates this as well as anything. The United Nations departed over
four months ago. The National Assembly's next session begins in the first week
of April, and other than the budget, only one law, the investment law, has been
accepted by the Council of Ministers for the Assembly's consideration. No press
law has been accepted, no penal code, no criminal procedure code, no immigration
law, no citizenship law, and no property law.
The perception of lack of
policy movement is also shared by the Cambodian people, and their disappointment
is deep. The Funcinpec party promised change and won a mandate for it in the UN
sponsored elections. That promise has yet to be made concrete and the Cambodian
people know it.
The former ruling party, the Cambodian People's Party,
retains overwhelming power. While this makes Funcinpec's failure more
understandable, it does not answer the question: why no policy movement at all?
Three hypotheses are plausible: lack of money, uncertainty about King Sihanouk,
and the lack of a clear plan and priorities from Funcinpec.
concrete change may be stunted by a lack of cash. Cambodians tend to connect the
incidence of corruption to low government salaries. The success of the ICORC
international donors' in Tokyo may help to alleviate this problem, and remove
Two weeks ago, King Sihanouk made his burial wishes
public. Many in Phnom Penh look to his passing with great
Certainly, the King now plays an essential role as the
mediator between the two major parties. The prospect of Cambodian politics
without such a mediator is an ominous one indeed and uncertainty about a
post-Sinhanouk future could explain the stagnation among policy makers.
Ironically the problem of a lack of law may be felt most acutely during
the succession. Cambodia's throne is elective, not strictly hereditary. The
Constitution created the Throne Council which will elect the next King, but the
rules for its functioning are so far unknown. That organic law, like so many
others, has not yet been written.
The slow progress toward creating a
legal structure is attributed by some to the lack of clear Funcinpec policies,
the absence of party unity and to weak leadership.
The policy stalemate
is already damaging Funcinpec's political standing. One UN human rights observer
hypothesized that if the elections were held now, Funcinpec would not get more
than 20 percent of the vote.
But for both parties continued stalemate is
risky. The lack of property law is only the most obvious danger. The question of
ownership is now the most potentially explosive issue in Cambodia. With no law,
no regularized institutions for the settlement of land or any other disputes,
and with endemic corruption among community leaders, the potential for
resentment and violence is huge.
Despite having a majority in the
National Assembly, Funcinpec faces the fact that the government apparatus, for
the most part, is still controlled by the CPP.
Both parties have
favoured playing politics in a backroom closed-door style, with decision-making
left in the hands of a few leading figures.
Lack of public dissension
has produced the appearance of governmental stability, but the price for
Funcinpec of the apparent calm is being seen to constantly gravitate to the
CPP's preferred position.
Funcinpec has not created a unified party
position distinct from the status-quo commitments of the CPP which it can take
to the public. In this way Funcinpec is failing to use its greatest advantage,
its public mandate, and is continuing to lose ground by playing politics by
CPP's rules. With its long-term survival at stake, and with the losses it is
already sustaining, it is difficult to understand why the party does not
redefine the rules of the game, which it seems so far to be losing.
Rainsy is the Funcinpec exception that proves the rule. As Finance Minister he
quickly assumed a very high profile and won international support as he pushed
for finance and budget reforms in the face of increasingly tough opposition. His
policy reforms are the sharp exception to the politics of stalemate, and the
forces in favour of the status-quo reacted against him using the language of
Prince Ranariddh, First Prime Minister and Funcinpec
leader, publicly scolded Rainsy and accused him of demagoguery after failing to
persuade the King to fire the crusading Finance Minister.
reigning-in of the most dynamic and initiative oriented public servant on the
political scene only confirms the wider influence of forces of stagnation and
The greatest threat to the status quo is the King's
health. Should the country lose its great arbitrator, to whom will Funcinpec
turn to mediate the conflicts that will continue to arise?
find that turning to the Cambodian people, who gave the party its mandate to
rule, is the only viable option.
This will make decision-making more
transparent, and more participatory - and more difficult and risky, as the
Olympic Market dispute has shown - but with Funcinpec's survival perhaps at
stake and no end so far to policy stalemate, there may be little choice.