The U.S. government has played a critical role in the months leading up to, and following, this past July's election in Cambodia. Unfortunately, at this time, there is little reason to be optimistic about the short-term future, as the Cambodian government has failed to address the fundamental human rights problems that plagued the pre-election period, including political violence, extrajudicial killings, and official impunity for abuses. These same problems now threaten to undermine prospects that any new government can gain the full confidence and support of the Cambodian people.
We believe that the international community was too hasty in endorsing both the elections process and the results as "free and fair." The creation of yet another antagonistic coalition government between Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen offers little hope of stability or human rights improvements.
While polling day itself drew large numbers of voters and was relatively peaceful, most of the year preceding election day was tainted by political violence, widespread intimidation, monopoly of the broadcast media by the ruling party, and murders of opposition members and supporters of Ranariddh.
Most of the international observer delegations flew in only days before the elections, gave their approval, and left as quickly as they came. Meanwhile, following the elections, hundreds of opposition activists fled their homes in the provinces after receiving threats of reprisals and death from local officials. In late August, unprecedented numbers of people took to the streets in Phnom Penh to protest the election results. Violence escalated, with a grenade attack at the Ministry of Interior on August 20 when Sam Rainsy was inside the compound. There were also mob killings of at least four ethnic Vietnamese on September 3 and 4 in conjunction with rumors that Vietnamese food vendors were poisoning the population.
On September 7, more than a week of civil unrest erupted in Phnom Penh, and riot police used lethal force to disperse opposition demonstrators. The protestors were mostly peaceful, though some did engage in violence such as stone-throwing. Since September 7, two deaths have been confirmed and more than thirty are under investigation by human rights workers. At least sixty people were wounded in the demonstrations, including fourteen who were sent to the hospital with bullet wounds. In addition, security forces detained more than twenty people, including students and monks, and many more people were reported as missing.
U.S. Policy Recommendations:
We urge the Clinton Administration, and members of this Committee, to insist upon concrete action by the Cambodian government -- as outlined below -- before the U.S. restores any bilateral or multilateral aid to Phnom Penh. We continue to strongly favor assistance to Cambodian NGOs, however.
The U.S. should publicly and privately support the efforts of the U.N. Secretary General's Special Representative, Thomas Hammarberg, who has called on the Cambodian government to:
--publicly acknowledge all instances of arrest and detention in connection with the demonstrations earlier this month;
-- make known the names of all detainees and their whereabouts, and any charges against them; in the absence of credible charges, they should be immediately released;
--open all places of detention to the International Committee of the Red Cross;
--investigate and prosecute those responsible for disappearances since the September 7 crackdown as well as those that took place prior to the elections;
-- fully investigate and prosecute the apparent killings of at least 16 people whose bodies have been found in recent weeks floating in rivers, irrigation ditches and shallow graves around Phnom Penh;
-- cease all threats to arrest and prosecute opposition leaders, such as Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha (former head of the parliamentary human rights committee), for exercising their rights of free speech and political participation.
Until the Cambodian government demonstrates a willingness to begin taking these steps, the U.S. should continue withholding direct government aid and urge other donors to do the same.
The U.S. should also help provide protection to courageous Cambodian NGOs, including human rights monitors, who are struggling to lay the groundwork for long term peaceful change. We are deeply concerned about police threats against the staff of the U.N. Centre for Human Rights in Phnom Penh.
In addition, we believe it is crucial that the United Nations continue to maintain a visible presence in Cambodia during this transition period. It is likely that political violence, arrests and killings will continue, and perhaps even accelerate, once agreement is reached on the composition of a new government. Acts of retaliation and retribution have been all too common in Cambodia in the past.
We hope the Administration will endorse the continuation of the mandate of the UN Secretary General's Personal Representative, Mr. Lakhan Mehrotra, as well as the mandate of the Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (COHCHR) -- which Second Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly tried to shut down. The COHCHR is currently due to operate until March 1999. But in light of the commune level elections scheduled for sometime next year, and ongoing reports of abuses, it should be extended and if possible, additional funding provided for the staff to be expanded.
Finally, we appreciate the efforts of the United States -- in the face of general donor weariness or "Cambodia fatigue" -- to encourage ASEAN, members of the European Union, Japan, and other key donors to press for basic human rights improvements, which are clearly essential to bringing about reconciliation, stability, and long-term economic development in Cambodia. The statements of some ASEAN governments at the UN General Assembly in New York on September 28 were particularly encouraging, and it appears that Cambodia's ASEAN membership remains on hold until ASEAN is confident that a legitimate and stable government is in place. The U.S. and other donors should also continue to vigorously condemn violent attacks on ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia.
Human Rights Developments
Hun Sen began to lay the groundwork for the 1998 elections in late 1997 by sending a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on October 22, guaranteeing the safe return of opposition politicians who fled after the coup and pledging to organize fair elections. By the end of November, the office of the United Nations Secretary-General's Representative in Cambodia (OSGRC) had created a new unit of international personnel, mandated to monitor the physical security and safety of returning political leaders, their freedom from arrest and detention, and their ability to engage in political activities. By early 1998, most had returned. These included Prince Ranariddh's party, Front Uni National pour un Cambodge Independent, Neutre, Pacifique, et Cooperatif, or FUNCINPEC; Sam Rainsy's Khmer Nation Party (KNP); and the Son Sann faction of the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP). Throughout the first half of the year, the CPP was virtually the only party able to freely and actively conduct political activities throughout the country. It was not until May that opposition parties were legally recognized and not until June that they were fully registered to participate in the election.
Until mid-February, a political impasse over Prince Ranariddh's ability to participate in the elections threatened to block international donor support for the vote. Hun Sen charged that Prince Ranariddh had imported illegal weapons in 1997 and mounted an armed opposition with Khmer Rouge support against government forces. In February, however, a group of donor and neighboring countries known as the Friends of Cambodia endorsed a peace initiative put forward by Japan, and Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh agreed. Dubbed the "Four Pillars" plan, it called for an immediate cease-fire and reintegration of resistance forces into the government army, the severing of by Prince Ranariddh'sties with the Khmer Rouge, the trial of Ranariddh in absentia followed by his pardon by King Sihanouk, and government guarantees of Prince Ranariddh's safe return to Cambodia.
A pattern of violence against lower-level opposition party workers in remote areas of the countryside began to emerge early in the year, especially after activists in some provinces made tentative first steps to reactivate grassroots networks. A National Election Committee (NEC) was formed in January to organize and monitor the elections and verify the accuracy of the final tally, but it was dominated by the CPP. Similarly, the Constitutional Council, the nation's highest appeals body, which was mandated to resolve electoral disputes and verify the accuracy of the final tally, had a disproportionate number of CPP-affiliated members and was established too late to address most election-related disputes. At party congresses in Phnom Penh in March, two leading opposition parties changed their names because of legal battles with pro-CPP rival factions. The KNP became the Sam Rainsy Party, and one faction of the BLDP became the Son Sann Party. During political party registration, which began on March 28, thirty-nine parties were approved by the Ministry of Interior and the NEC.
March and April were characterized by a wave of political violence. High-ranking FUNCINPEC officials were targeted prior to Prince Ranariddh's return on March 30. General Thach Kim Sang was gunned down on a busy Phnom Penh street in broad daylight on March 4; Lt. Col. Moung Sameth was assassinated on March 3 in Kien Svay district near Phnom Penh, and Lt. Col. Chea Vutha, was killed on March 28 also in Kien Svay district. Local activists in the countryside were also targeted, as for example in the April 26 grenade attack against Son Sann Party members in Takeo, in which two people were killed.
In April the CPP turned its attention to getting its members appointed to the provincial and commune election commissions and launched a heavy-handed but generally nonviolent party recruitment campaign. Local officials and militia went house to house or conducted mass meetings to solicit thumbprints and pledges from the populace to vote for the CPP, confiscated and recorded identification numbers on voter registration cards, and conducted "mock elections" before the actual polling, in which people were pressured to vote for the CPP. Although voter registration got off to a rocky start on May 18, the NEC reported that 92 percent of the estimated 5.6 million eligible voters eventually registered to vote.
Top opposition leaders such as Prince Ranariddh and Rainsy began to make high-profile visits to the provinces in May, but the ongoing threat of political violence discouraged activity by local-level opposition members outside Phnom Penh. A May 13, 1998 memorandum from the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Human Rights in Cambodia detailed forty-two killings and six long-term "disappearances" of people presumed killed since the initial forty-one killings that took place in the immediate aftermath of the July 1997 coup. A U.N. report prepared in April concluded that the government had not launched any serious investigations into coup-related abuses and that no investigations were planned.
On June 8, the co-prime ministers signed a directive establishing a National Human Rights Committee. The fact that the committee was led by two top advisers to Hun Sen, and that this was the fourth time since July 1997 that Hun Sen had pledged to set up such a commission, did not inspire confidence that it was a serious effort. A National Task Force on Security for the Elections was established the same month, responsible for investigating election- related violence. Headed by National Police Chief Hok Lundy, himself linked to political murders, the task force concluded that all of the cases it received stemmed from personal motives such as revenge or robbery.
In the final two months preceding the elections the Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights received more than four hundred allegations of voter intimidation, death threats, acts of violence against individuals, illegal arrests and detention, forced removal or destruction of party signs or shooting at party offices, coercion of voters to join the CPP, temporary confiscation of voter registration cards by local authorities, and barring of party members from access to communities. More than one hundred of the complaints were deemed credible.
In the elections themselves, 94 percent of the registered voters turned out to vote, observed by the Joint International Observation Group (JIOG), a U.N.-coordinated body of thirty-seven countries. The JIOG dispatched only 250 pairs of observers to cover more than 11,000 polling sites and 1,600 counting centers. Additional observation was handled by Cambodian observers under the auspices of well-respected electoral monitoring NGOs, such as the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL) and the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (COFFEL). Meanwhile, counting continued well into the third week in August.
The JIOG issued its assessment that the voting was free and fair on July 27, before the counting was even completed. The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) was the only international observer delegation to avoid making a snap judgment, calling on the NEC on July 30 to investigate complaints of polling and counting irregularities as well as reports of widespread intimidation and threats against opposition party members following the elections.
In preliminary results released by the NEC in August, the CPP was declared the winner, but the opposition rejected the results and demanded a recount. However, after cursory examination of only a fraction of the opposition's complaints, both the NEC and the Constitutional Council declared the appeals process closed. On September 1, the NEC announced the final results: the CPP received sixty-four of 122 National Assembly seats, or a slight majority, while FUNCINPEC got forty-three seats and the Sam Rainsy Party fifteen. The opposition refused to join a coalition government proposed by the CPP, which had not won enough seats for the two-thirds majority required to form the new government on its own. In late August the opposition launched three weeks of protest marches and rallies in Phnom Penh and set up a tent city in front of the National Assembly, which they called "Democracy Square." Unprecedented numbers of people took to the streets to call for Hun Sen to step down. Government officials declared that the demonstrations were illegal and threatened to arrest Sam Rainsy.
Anti-Vietnamese sentiments flared in some of the demonstrations and rallies, with opposition politicians charging that Hun Sen and Vietnamese "puppets" were intent on eliminating the Cambodian people. On August 30, demonstrators attempted to destroy a stone memorial in "Democracy Square" that commemorates Cambodia-Vietnam friendship, smashing it with hammers and setting it on fire. On September 3 and 4, at least four ethnic Vietnamese were killed in mob violence in Phnom Penh as a result of rumors than more than seventy people had died from contaminated palm wine that had been poisoned by Vietnamese people.
Following a grenade attack on September 7 on Hun Sen's residence in Phnom Penh, government forces found a pretext to move against the demonstrators, opening fire outside the Cambodiana Hotel, where Sam Rainsy had taken refuge, killing one man and provoking widespread anger. Over the next week daily clashes broke out between riot police, pro-CPP demonstrators and opposition supporters. Bulldozers were brought in to destroy the tent city, and riot police used electric batons, fire hoses, rifle butts and bullets to disperse protesters around the city. At least two people were killed as a result of the unrest and human rights workers are investigating more than thirty suspicious deaths in and around Phnom Penh that occurred at the same time. Dozens more people, including monks, women, and students, were beaten or injured by government security forces, and more than twenty people were arrested. The government banned dozens of opposition politicians from leaving the country and threatened that some would be arrested.
Under intense pressure from the international community and King Sihanouk, the opposition called off the demonstrations and began to make accommodations with Hun Sen. On September 22, the king hosted a meeting in Siem Reap between Hun Sen, Prince Ranariddh, and Rainsy. This facilitated the swearing in of the new National Assembly on September 24.
Fundamental freedoms of association, assembly, and expression faced periodic threats during the year, although large numbers of people, sometimes tens of thousands, were able to gather for political rallies, labor demonstrations, and protest marches, and, for the most part, candidates were able to speak freely during the campaign. In the course of the crackdown on opposition supporters protesting the election results, however, the government issued a statement on September 9 that banned "unauthorized gatherings," particularly those that might disrupt public order and security.
Opposition parties had virtually no air time on broadcast media during the year, except for the thirty-day official campaign period, when NEC regulations provided for somewhat more equitable media access. Even during the campaign, however, the privately owned Apsara and Bayon stations continued to give disproportionate coverage in the first half of July to the CPP, which appeared 446 times, with FUNCINPEC appearing six times and the Sam Rainsy Party nine times. The court system remained virtually powerless in 1998, with the judiciary subject to political pressure. While no move was made against officials suspected of rights abuses, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in August announced the creation of a Commission of Experts to assess evidence of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity committed by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, who died on April 15, only days after the United States announced its intention to capture him and his top deputies and bring them to trial. Questions persisted as to the status of other ranking Khmer Rouge leaders who are still alive, including those who remain in hiding as well as more than a dozen influential Khmer Rouge who have defected to the government since 1996.