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Getting Cambodia Ready for Elections


This report, prepared by an International Crisis Group correspondent in Phnom Penh, studies the background to the latest crisis affecting the Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia. It examines current conditions in the country, assesses the key issues requiring redress and offers a number of specific recommendations for international policy-makers aimed at shoring up political stability, ensuring that this year’s elections in Cambodia are as free and fair as possible and contributing to the long-term survival of the democratic process in Cambodia.

Just over six years after the Paris Peace Accords were signed and Cambodia’s warring factions committed themselves in front of the world community to a cessation of hostilities and the building up of a liberal democracy, Cambodia is once again in a highly precarious position. In July 1997, after months of rising tensions within and outside the coalition government, violence returned to the streets of Phnom Penh as Second Prime Minister Hun Sen successfully toppled his rival, First Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh, in a move widely interpreted by onlookers as a coup d’Etat.

This report looks at the factors that contributed to the fall of Cambodia’s shaky coalition government and the rise of Hun Sen and examines the implications of both events. It finds that far from easing tensions, Hun Sen’s push for power, roundly condemned by most external governments, has coincided with a tightening of restrictions on the exercise of fundamental political freedoms and has heightened the risk of renewed civil conflict overtaking the country.

In the absence of any other obvious way forward, the focus of international efforts to salvage the situation has fallen on general elections due later this year as a panacea for Cambodia’s ills. While elections provide an important opportunity to return the country to the democratic path, the report finds that the climate for democracy in Cambodia has become increasingly harsh in recent months. While it would be misleading to say that Cambodian democracy is dead—a free, if muted, press still exists, parliament meets regularly to debate key legislation, non-governmental organisations continue their work—it is certainly under threat. Moreover, the fundamental conditions necessary to support free and fair elections—including a neutral political environment, an effective legislative framework and sound technical and logistical administrative machinery—simply do not exist on the ground. Helping to create those conditions will depend in part on continued, intensive international efforts over the coming months.

The international community, the report argues, is in a unique and powerful position to help. Key external governments which are signatories to the Paris Peace Accords have both a legal and a moral right to intervene to safeguard commitments made under the pact.

Key recommendations

Making aid conditional on progress…

Policy-makers should be prepared to tie the granting of international assistance to Cambodia’s government and state structures to the achievement of specific objectives in relation to the electoral process.

The potential potency of conditionality lies in the fact that the government needs foreign funds to function and to stage the elections and because it also wants the international stamp of approval for the polls.

The key to applying conditionality to the Cambodian situation will be unity. Those nations who signed the Paris Peace Accords must send a clear message to Phnom Penh that they are not prepared to tolerate further violations of the accords provisions. They should join with other donor nations to make it clear to the government that international support for elections will not be forthcoming unless the necessary conditions for a free and fair poll are in place.

…Setting the right conditions

The most important single step that the government in Phnom Penh could take to help improve conditions in the lead up to elections would be to invite Ranariddh to return to Cambodia and run in the elections— without fear of arrest, intimidation or physical attack. As long as Ranariddh remains in exile, prevented from participating in elections, kept away by threat of arrest and a jail term, there can be no free and fair elections in Cambodia.

In addition to bringing Ranariddh back into the electoral process, the Hen Sen government should be required to implement a number of additional measures designed to build confidence. These include:

 issuing written directives to authorities nation-wide allowing all parties to open offices and conduct political activities;  granting all parties equal access to state broadcast and print organs and permitting them to operate their own media operations without harassment;  ensuring the independence of the National Election Committee (NEC);  ordering a transparent investigation into the 30 March 1997 grenade attack and extra-judicial killings that followed the July 1997 fighting; and  scrapping the current immunity of state employees from prosecution as one means of tackling Cambodia’s culture of impunity.

…And bolstering the international community’s presence

To help ensure the safety and freedom of movement of returning political exiles, the United Nations should increase the number of UN human rights monitors present in the country.

Extra UN military observers and a small team of expatriate police are also needed to monitor a cease-fire and report on progress towards de-politicising the police and military. The current complement of one Belgian military observer in Phnom Penh is not nearly sufficient for the task.




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