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The state of political freedom in Cambodia

A woman casts her vote at a polling station during the commune elections in June 2017 in Phnom Penh.
A woman casts her vote at a polling station during the commune elections in June 2017 in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

The state of political freedom in Cambodia

Letter to the editor from Huy Vannak, undersecretary of state for the Interior Ministry

Editor,
Currently, the beautiful and readily smiling people of Cambodia are enjoying peace, stability, and sustainable development based on the principles of liberal democracy and pluralism. Cambodian people have much hope and confidence for their bright future. No one should fear in a country that has been transformed since the devastation brought by the Khmer Rouge genocide in 1975-1979 and the ensuing civil war in the 1980s. Now, everyone has full freedom of expression in every way as we have long graduated from fear.

It’s clear that the political freedom and democratic space won’t work in a society where there is no peace, stability and rich social development. I have argued sometimes that “without economic prosperity, democracy will just be an illusion”.

I think we all may agree that if we look at the bigger picture, democracy is not just defined by elections and political freedom, but prosperity, social development, prolonged peace and infrastructural development. We need to create many choices. On the one hand, we promote political freedom; and on the other hand we push for economic prosperity.

Democracy in Cambodia is indeed growing fast and becoming mature and vibrant with full endorsement by the Constitution. Article 51 of Chapter IV of the Constitution on political regime states that “The Kingdom of Cambodia adopts a policy of liberal multi-party democracy. Cambodian citizens are master of their country’s destiny.”

Our Constitution states very clearly that no one can initiate an amendment to the Constitution on two significant points: the first one is on the constitutional monarchy regime; and the second one is liberal multiparty democracy in Cambodia.

It is important to reflect that the principle of Cambodian democracy is not only enshrined in the Constitution, but Cambodia is also actively promoting democracy in practice because we value democratic space beyond just for opposition voices, but we also value the reasonable and true voices of the people, the villagers, the youths, the women, the indigenous people, the religious minorities, and above all voices for constructive contribution.

Meanwhile, Cambodia is working very hard to build social tools to support healthy political freedom and democratic space because, once again, political freedom is for everyone and for all; it’s not just for a single party or any particular group; it’s for the interest of all the people and the nation.

The Royal Government of Cambodia is working to develop infrastructure such as roads, rails, ports, bridges, power lines and technologies to support connectivity and integration of all sectors. By doing so, we believes that once the economic prosperity prevails, political freedom and political space are continuing to progress vividly.

The government has increased the minimum wage every year to public service officers as well as increasing wages to workers and employees in private sector. The better quality of life of the population is reflected in the economic indicators in particular the constant increase in GDP. Poverty rates have fallen sharply and exceeded the Millennium Development Goals. International reserves have increased with foreign direct investment.

In fact, Cambodia’s economy has achieved rapid growth, maintaining a steady 7 percent growth rate over the last 15 years in a sustainable and equitable manner. As such Cambodia’s economy is seen as one of the fastest-growing Asian economies in the world.

Along with the above achievements, the process of building political tolerance and political harmonisation remains a challenge and requiring greater commitment. While positive steps have been taken to promote democratic space, there are difficulties in instilling the idea and value of civic and democratic participation amongst opposition activists; they want elections but they deny election results; they say they want a just society but they abuse the law and insult the role of the King; they want their voice heard, but they reject the choice and the will of the majority of the people.

Currently, there are 36 political parties in action after 20 were removed from the list of political parties for violating the Law on Political Party. Over 5,000 associations and non-governmental organisations have been registered and are operating. In the field of information, there are over 600 news organisations, including foreign language newspapers.

The upcoming 6th National Assembly election will be held on July 29 as scheduled without modification.

Similar to other democratic countries around the world, the multiparty liberal democracy system and citizens’ rights to freedom in Cambodia are reinforced through legal framework that anyone acts to create social instability to destabilise political stability, public safety and order, downgrades dignity and reputation, and social welfare of all citizens, will be prohibited and would be strictly monitored through legal means adhering to democratic principle and the rule of law.

There are no doubts that Cambodia’s efforts in adhering and promoting the principle of democracy and the rule of law are to deter a return to the past, the darkest chapter of recent history of Cambodia brought on by the Khmer Rouge, which divided the people and society, instituted genocide and completely destroyed political, economic, administrative and social structures in Cambodia in the 1970s.

At the same time, we are witnessing ongoing tragedies of people in some countries in the Middle East. The destruction of lives and the misery of refugees remain cruel issues in front of our eyes. We are constantly cautioned by the lessons learned from such devastations.

There is a need to educate people about rights and freedom so that they can exercise their rights correctly, morally and responsibly. It perhaps requires a long journey for Cambodia to build a mature political behaviour especially amongst opposition activists because we do not want all people to participate actively in just the political life, but also in the economic, social and cultural life of the nation.

To ensure these values and rights and to continue creating wider space for democracy, it is fundamental to continue to educate and bring awareness to our people that we all have the obligation to continue to protect peace and stability, to promote and respect the rule of law, and to safeguard the independence and sovereignty of the nation.

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