T he following is an open letter to the Prime Minister Prince Norodom
Ranariddh, from Gay J. McDougall, Executive Director of the
International Human Rights Law Group, Washington D.C.
In May 1993
more than ninety percent of the Cambodian electorate cast ballots in the United
Nations-sponsored national elections. This huge turn-out, in the face of a
widespread campaign of violence and expected Khmer Rouge attacks, astonished
many observers who believed that the Cambodian people were not ready for
It is therefore surprising, and saddening, to find the leader
of the party which won those elections reaching the same conclusion as those
mistaken pundits. Your statement of "Vital Issues", dated August 3, 1995, seems
to discount the democratic aspirations of millions of Cambodians by asserting
that for the "farmers who till the land," democracy is "just a phrase to be
talked about in idle gossip." These are the very people who elected Funcinpec to
lead the country. One is reduced to conjecture whether their mandate is no
longer important, or necessary, or required in the future.
You state that
"democracy in the Cambodian sense" means "food for the people's stomach[s],
shelter, education, medical facilities, and basic amenities and the freedom to
express and move freely." Of course, for the hungry, the day-to-day struggle for
survival will always be of greater concern than abstract freedoms. But this is
no justification for a society to suspend democratic freedoms and human rights.
Social problems can only be solved if they are brought to light, which is best
accomplished in an open society.
You assert that "When the rural poor
people have sufficient food, shelter, education and basic amenities, then
democracy can be preached and instilled in abundance." Why wait? A government
can best contribute to development through intelligent economic management,
promoting the rule of law, and minimizing corruption, not through the
suppression of basic democratic rights. Political oppression in Singapore,
Malaysia and Indonesia did not cause economic growth - otherwise countries like
Burma and North Korea would also be economic tigers. Cambodia's own recent
history should dispel you of any such authoritarian illusions.
that "discipline is more essential in our society than democracy, though they
[the people] have a need of both." Discipline can mean many things. Inculcating
in society respect for law and order is a priority for any government. But such
a goal is impossible when those empowered to enforce the law, the police and the
military, are among its principle transgressors, and can commit crimes with
Discipline has also been defined by certain Asian
leaders as restrictions on those who criticize the government. It is hard to see
why Cambodia would want to follow this example. One of the most impressive
developments here in recent years has been the re-emergence of civil society. It
would b e a grave blow to Cambodia's international image were the government to
repress those very bodies - the independent press, local development
organizations and human rights groups - which engage in the open exchange of
ideas and information (including criticism of the government) and thus
contribute to Cambodia's development.
Your justification is that
democracy must be limited "when there are many elements within our society,
notably the Khmer Rouge, to take advantage of the democracy issue and turn the
country into another killing field." Indeed, you seem to suggest that those
persons who advocate greater democracy in Cambodia today are akin to Khmer Rouge
ideologues who "talked about elimination of human rights [violations] and
promised the world to the peasants."
Violent groups feed off of
government oppression, rarely democracy. A Cambodian government that respects
human rights and has the support of the people is the best insurance that the
nightmare years of Khmer Rouge rule will never return. The significant decline
of the Khmer Rouge since the 1993 elections can be attributed not to the
suppression of rights (or to military victories), but to the formation of a
government legitimate in the eyes of the Cambodian people. It would seem unwise
to tamper with that legitimacy.
"Preachers of democracy," you state,
"must be aware that they would not be able to speak publicly and openly without
fear or favor if the country had no democracy or human rights." Unfortunately,
the open society that has emerged in Cambodia in recent years is rapidly
closing. Only the bravest Cambodian journalists and social critics are undaunted
by the threats, arrests, murders, fines and prison sentences handed down on
those who have publicly expressed their views. Recent developments, including
the oppressive new press law, provide little reason for
Democracy is not a threat to Cambodia, but a fragile
opportunity. Two days after "Vital Issues" was issued, six persons were arrested
in Phnom Penh for the simple act of tying statements to balloons and setting
them aloft, The statements contained common criticisms of the government and
suggestions for reform. The six, including four balloon vendors, were charged
with incitement to violence and face up to five years in prison.
Minister of one of the world's nascent democracies, you are the voice upon which
Cambodia's international reputation will stand. Through words and deeds you can
be an advocate for human rights and an open society - or you can join those
leaders who maintain that their own people, and Asians generally, are not
entitled to the same fundamental rights as people elsewhere. The choice is
- August 21, 1995.