Analysis and Comment on the
Society and Politics of Cambodia

Articles from 2000

Articles from 2001

30 December 2002--Not invited to the party

25,000 or so Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts are gathered in Thailand for the ten-day international Jamboree held every few years, but the Cambodian scouts are still all in Cambodia. They weren't invited. Although we are the closest country to the Jamboree, none of Cambodia's scouts are attending because the two competing Scout groups here have strong connections with the two major political parties. Because of that affiliation, the world Scouting movement, based in Geneva, refuses to recognize them. The Cambodian Scouts group has 1,000 members and the Scout Association of Cambodia has 23,000 boys and girls who would dearly love to be in Thailand right now.

Return to Top of Page

10 November 2002--Jesus: Pol Pot #2

Prey Veng province in Cambodia has been the scene of recent demonstrations against Christians who were described as a second Pol Pot. A flyer handed out in several villages proclaimed: "We, the Khmer citizens throughout the Kingdom of Cambodia, propose to reject Christianity called Jesus Pol Pot Number Two, which is carrying out activities in the country every day.

"Please brothers, aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, stand up in solidarity to topple the Pol Pot group, which has the underground force that makes politics disseminating deceptive news to ensure the Khmer [people] betray their own nation...their own religion."

The chairman of an umbrella evangelical group representing 700 Christian churches admitted that some problems were due to over-zealous proselytizing and that some "wrong words" had been said. Maryknoll has been at some meetings called to help survivors of disasters where some evangelical groups had pledged help only to their members, a form of "rice Christianity." The evangelical spokesman also said that he thought the main cause of the tension was feuding between political parties because some Christians had expressed support for the ruling Cambodian People's Party instead of the Sam Rainsy Party.

The Ministry of Cult and Religions estimates there are 100,000 Christians in Cambodia's 11 million population. There are 5,000 Khmer Catholics and 15,000 Vietnamese Catholics in Cambodia. The Ministry of Cult and Religions is looking into the troubles so that it doesn't become a larger problem.

Return to Top of Page

9 November 2002--Supreme Court Official

A Justice Ministry official announced that Uk Vithun has been appointed prosecutor general of the Supreme Court of Cambodia. This is the same Uk Vithun, who more than a year ago, was ousted as Minister of Justice because of corruption allegations.

Return to Top of Page

7 November 2002--Security? in Phnom Penh

The ASEAN summit meeting has ended in Phnom Penh, and the heads of state have returned to their respective countries.  Thai and Cambodian newspapers have been generous with plaudits about Cambodia's handling of this major meeting.  The logistics generally went well and there were no terrorist attacks or other unwanted events.  There may have been an element of good luck mixed with the preparatory work of the Cambodian government.  The newspaper reports how the traffic police used the restricted streets as an opportunity to bribe motorists.  One motorcycle taxi driver reported that the police said they would allow him to use the otherwise deserted street, cleared for the diplomats, for 5000 riel (about $1.28).

Return to Top of Page

5 November 2002--Muslims in Cambodia

Cambodia has about 700,000 Muslims, called "Chams" in the local language.   They are concentrated mostly in the province which bears their name, Kampong Cham.  They constitute about 6% of the population.  There has been a shift toward more fundamentalist forms of Cambodian Islam in recent years, and about six percent of the Chams are said to be members of the Wahabi sect, the spiritual home of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.  It is estimated that 40% to 50% of the Chams would be considered fundamentalist.  The USA, British, and Australian embassies have counseled caution for their nationals and increased embassy security, but there is no evidence of hostile Islamic activity and Cham community leaders have vocally condemned violent jihad as contrary to the teachings of the Koran.  A US Embassy spokesman said the embassy has initiated outreach efforts with the Chams in order to learn their concerns and to make clear the concerns of the US.

Return to Top of Page

31 October 2002--Security, Cambodian Style

From the Cambodia Daily: Crackdown in P Penh before ASEAN summit

"Following the devastating bomb explosions on the Indonesian island of Bali, Cambodian authorities are cracking down on karaoke clubs throughout the capital to secure the city for an upcoming regional summit, officials said yesterday."

Well, THAT should make all the ASEAN heads of state feel safer.

Return to Top of Page

15 October 2002--Cambodia: One of the Poorest Countries

  • 57% of the population live under the poverty line
  • 70% of the population lack clean water
  • 46% of the children are malnourished

Return to Top of Page

5 September 2002: Government Officials Appear in Suspicious Circumstances--Again

Police and telecommunications officials raided a large house in Phnom Penh yesterday and uncovered an illegal telephone setup allowing long-distance callers to avoid government-imposed international call charges. The house is owned by Prime Minister Hun Sen's brother-in-law who is also ambassador to Burma. It's sad that the names of government officials and other high-placed persons so often appear in connection with reports of corruption and wrong-doing. Perhaps they are innocent, but just the frequency with which the reports occur is demoralizing. This was the 19th time the ministry has "cracked down" on illegal telecommunications operations. In February they raided an operation in rooftop offices of the Ministry of Information. In March the raid was inside the military's technical department.

Return to Top of Page

20 August 2002--Health Care in Cambodia--Part 1

[Health care is a major problem for people in Cambodia. Medical facilities are too few and often lacking equipment, supplies, and trained staff, and many people are too poor to seek out the services that do exist. This is the first of several glimpses into the health care situation in Cambodia as described in the report The Kingdom of Cambodia--From Reconstruction to Sustainable Development published in March, 2002 by the Institute for International Cooperation for the Japan International Cooperation Agency.]

Medical Facilities
The number of beds nationwide is low at 6,516 (approximately 57 beds per population of 100,000), while the percentage of occupied beds is 48.76%. The average period of hospitalization is 4.75 days.

The hospitalization facilities of health centers are usually limited to two beds. Many health centers have recently been rebuilt, making them cleaner than their supervising district level referral hospitals. However, as not all the health centers have yet been built as planned, some are still absent while others are old and decrepit....

The district level referral hospitals usually have about 50 beds but no operating room, and use electricity supplied by a generator. Tests and treatments requiring electricity are generally not performed. Except for the tuberculosis wards where the patients can receive medication and rice free of charge, hospitalized patients are rare....

Return to Top of Page

19 August 2002--High School Exam Failure Rate Increases

Several weeks ago, about 12,000 students took the examination at the end of their high school studies.  The examination results determine who will be allowed into the university's limited seats.  But Ministry of Education officials have announced that less than 40% of the students passed the exam, compared to 66% last year.

The lower scores were attributed to a crackdown on cheating and bribery--usually very much a part of the examination scene--and a new, tougher examination.  Another factor was that this year the students were tested on two new subjects which were not announced until the examination day so that no one had time to prepare for them.  Junior high examinations begin today.

Return to Top of Page

8 August 2002--It takes two (trees) to get married

The National Assembly (Cambodia's parliament) recently passed another chapter of a long-delayed forestry bill. This chapter urges that engaged couples plant two trees before getting a marriage certificate. Opposition members criticized the bill as violating people's right to marry and also as an opportunity for corruption because "officials may demand money for the trees." Another question was where newlyweds in Phnom Penh are going to plant trees in the city?

Return to Top of Page

6 August 2002--Only in Cambodia (or similar countries)

Last Thursday the son of the chief of police of the province was arrested for gunning down one of the body guards of the prime minister.  The incident occurred at 3:00 AM on one of Phnom Penh's main streets after the men had been drinking in a night spot and got into a fight.  It's amazing how many of the shootings involve guards and hangers-on and relatives of top officials.  Makes you wonder what they do during the day when they're so often in trouble in the middle of the night.  It makes you wonder about a few other things, too.

Return to Top of Page

31 July 2002--Some Improvement

Cambodia's quality of life has improved compared to other countries, according to a new report of the United Nations Development Program. In 1990, when the report was first compiled, Cambodia ranked absolutely last of the 135 countries rated that year. In this new report, Cambodia has risen to 130 out of 173 countries that were studied. Of our neighboring countries, Thailand ranked 70, Vietnam 109, and Laos 143.

Return to Top of Page

28 July 2002--Foreign Aid to Cambodia

By the end of the Consultative Group meeting last month, foreign governments had pledged $635 million for the reconstruction of Cambodia.  (The Consultative Group is a meeting of the government of Cambodia and the major donors, with input from NGO groups.)  A good deal of this money will go to NGOs working in Cambodia because government corruption and the lack of accountability and transparency is such a problem.  Many donors are reluctant to give money directly to the government.  For the United States, the US Agency for International Development will manage almost $40 million of this year's US pledge and USAID is allowed to distribute money only through NGOs.

Return to Top of Page

23 July 2002--Praise for Cambodia's AIDS Progress

At the recently concluded 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain, a report on the worldwide AIDS epidemic praised Cambodia's progress in fighting the spread of the disease. The UN report noted that the infection rate among pregnant women in Cambodia declined by almost a third between 1997 and 2000. However, on the negative side, the report noted that life expectancy in Cambodia had been reduced by four years because of the loss of life caused by AIDS.

Return to Top of Page

19 July 2002--Cambodia's Next King

Traditionally the subject of the succession in Cambodia's monarchy has been a taboo subject. Even Prime Minister Hun Sen recently suggested the topic should not be raised. But yesterday some opposition party members met with the king to discuss the succession, and he is said that it is "not insulting" to discuss the matter. Present law mandates a nine-member Throne Council--composed of politicians and religious leaders--to choose the next king, but the law doesn't specify what kind of a majority is needed to make a decision. A new opposition-sponsored law would allow any direct descendant of the king to be considered for the throne and also provides that the queen should act as regent if the king is away or incapacitated. Several of the king's sons have already said that they wish to avoid any consideration as a future king.

Return to Top of Page

12 July 2002----Consultative Group Statement--Critical Issues that Need Major Improvement

After pointing out some of the positive and negative aspects of Cambodian society, the NGO community listed the following as critical issues that need major improvement if the situation of the people in Cambodia, especially the poor, is to be improved. These issues are written in diplomatic-speak. Read between the lines and guess what the authors would have really liked to put in black and white:

The NGOs would like to see major improvements that affect the poor and vulnerable, concretely:

  • Continuous work towards equitable growth: an increased focus on the structural causes of poverty, in-depth analysis of poverty impacts and coordination of all policies (including macro-economic, fiscal, trade, social, and environmental policies). The benchmark to evaluate success or failure of the reform programs must be what happens to the most vulnerable groups.
  • Radical improvements in the culture of impunity and effective anti-corruption measures.
  • Poverty reduction strategies that put at their center the people for whom they are intended, allowing them to participate in all phases and at all levels of the process (including policy, implementation and evaluation).
  • Enforced standardized government procedures for all new and modified legislation. These procedures should require all government agencies to establish timeframes and opportunities for public consultation at all stages of the legislative and regulatory process.

Return to Top of Page

8 July 2002--Consultative Group Statement--Then the Bad News

A consortium of NGO organizations in Cambodia prepared a statement to the Consultative Group of donors about funding for the Royal Government of Cambodia in the next year. Earlier I presented their positive comments about progress in Cambodia. Here are some negative comments they also made:

NGOs note the following areas require further attention:

  • Economic growth has not been accompanied by redistribution [of wealth]: there is minimal equity. The rapid growth strategy pushed by donors is increasing inequity.
  • The progress in policy has not translated into progress in impact: NGOs cannot see positive impact in the communities where we work.
  • Corruption and the culture of impunity remain rampant. Reform attempts stop at the point where they begin to affect vested interests.
  • So far, civil sector reform has not been translated into improved public services.
  • Budgets for social sectors have increased but inadequate levels of funding reach the local level: allocated budgets are being disbursed late or not at all.
  • The progress in legislation is uneven and not always transparent. There are no clear, standardized procedures for civil society participation.

Return to Top of Page

5 July 2002--Consultative Group Statement--First the Good News

Every year the Cambodian government requests foreign aid from the international community and international institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank. Each year also the Consultative Group--the donors and the Royal Government of Cambodia--meets to discuss the next year's aid package, and the NGO community participates in this Consultative Group through a consortium of three NGO membership groups in Cambodia. These are the people on the ground who know what is happening and who know what the Cambodian government is doing and not doing with the donor money from previous years, and they make pointed recommendations about what should be funded and what should not be funded.

Following are some statements from the Executive Summary of the NGO Statement to the 2002 Consultative Group Meeting on Cambodia. This first section points out what the NGO community sees as positive developments in Cambodia in the last year.

NGOs wish to highlight some important achievements of the RGC:

  • Commune Elections were held in February 2002, starting a necessary component of the decentralization and deconcentration processes.
  • There has been an increase in the use of participatory approaches, recognizing the crucial role played by civil society.
  • Some progress in policies and technical inputs for governance reforms, necessary for poverty reduction.
  • The establishment of the Council of Social Development is a hopeful sign of the government's inclusion of social issues in the development agenda.
  • There has been continued peace in the country.

Return to Top of Page

1 July 2002--New Judicial Council in Cambodia

On 19 June, the day the group of international donors began their meeting in Cambodia, the king signed into law an enactment forming a Council of Legal and Judicial Reform.  Critics charge, though, that it was mainly to appease the donors--frequently critical of the slow pace of judicial and legal reform in the country--that the council was created.  One of their main complaints against the new body is its lack of independence since high government officials are part of the group, weakening the concept of the separation of powers.  Cambodia's executive is criticized for its interference in judicial proceedings, as when Prime Minister Hun Sen last year ordered 70 persons free on bail or already acquitted to be re-arrested.  The new council is also faulted for a lack of accountability, being set up to essentially police itself.

Return to Top of Page

22 June 2002--Blame the Victim

One of the international NGOs that helps women and girls was sheltering sixteen young Vietnamese women after rescuing them from a Phnom Penh brothel.  The women were all under sixteen years of age and had been brought to Cambodia to work in the sex industry here. So what does the local government do?  They go to the safe house of the NGO and arrest the sixteen girls and jail them for illegally entering the country.  Did they prosecute the brothel owners?  No.  Did they prosecute the sex trade organizers who brought the young women to Cambodia?  No.  All those people might have good government connections.  Instead they go after the defenseless girls.   At least they demonstrated the impunity of the real law breakers and the bias of the justice system while the international donors were still in the country and could see the sad state of the justice and legal and law enforcement systems in Cambodia.

Return to Top of Page

17 June--International Donors Meeting

Wednesday will see the beginning of a three-day international donors meeting that will decide how much money is given to Cambodia in the coming year.  Contributions, especially from Japan, Australia, and Germany--Cambodia's top donors, are tied to political, legal, judicial, and environmental reform along with the elimination of corruption.  Somehow those goals never seem to be met but the donors keep giving anyway.  Last year donor nations gave $60 million more than the government asked for!  The donors need to institute stronger requirements for real progress, better monitoring, and a real improvement in the life of the people.  So far they haven't done that and the government feels they can get away with just about anything.  Last Friday the Phnom Penh governor (mayor) prohibited any protests leading up to this week's conference--demonstrations had been planned against corruption and poverty--because "there is no guarantee outsiders will not stir up trouble".  The really sad part is that the government can do things like that and get away with it, and they will still get all the money they want by the end of the week.

Return to Top of Page

11 April--Phnom Penh Water Park

April 6th was the big day, the opening of the Phnom Penh Water Park, a $2 million dollar complex of water slides, sprays, fountains, and pools on the western edge of the city. The park is something of a mystery. City and tourism authorities have no information about it and the list of investors is being kept private. And even more of a mystery is how it is going to survive. The entrance fee is $5 per person and even on opening day there were just a few families trying it out. People here just don't have that kind of money. Even the city infrastructure can't support the park: the city water system couldn't provide the water so four million liters of water were trucked in and filtered to begin operations. All the questions make some wonder if it is some sort of a money-laundering operation .

Return to Top of Page

7 April--Resettling Burned out Squatters

In November, 2001, two mysterious fires burned out large sections of a squatter area along the river in Phnom Penh. More than 20,000 of the poorest people were left homeless. Many people suspect the government was behind the fires, to clear the area for development.

Children in a squatter resettlement areaWithin a week or two, the government had moved the burned out people to a new area outside the city, actually two big rice fields with no electricity, water, roads, sanitation, schools, shops, or employment. Nothing. It could hardly be more cruel. Maryknoll had been supporting some of the families in the burned out squatter area with a small subsidy to keep their children in school so we have followed those families out to the new area.

Click here for more photographs from the new resettlement area. This photo shows the children of one family whose schooling Maryknoll is supporting.

Return to Top of Page

20 March 2002--Skulls Find a New Resting Place

Map made of skullsFor more than twenty years, visitors to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh have been startled at the end of their tour of the high school turned into a torture center by a large, ceiling-to-floor map created by 300 human skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge. The display was upsetting, almost sickening, some visitors say, and some Cambodians felt the map dehumanized, rather than memorialized, the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. But other Cambodians said the map's shock value was important and appropriate, considering the magnitude of the Khmer Rouge's atrocities.

The questions have become moot now, though, as the map was reverently dismantled this week after a Buddhist ceremony for the dead. The skulls will be placed in a glass display case inside the museum. And the map of skulls will be replaced by a large aerial map showing the location all the mass graves, torture centers, and prisons set up in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge.

Return to Top of Page

11 March 2002--Ethics a "Luxury"in Cambodia

At a recent regional media meeting, Cambodian journalists told of being torn between professional ethics and making money. At best, some of the Cambodians reported, they begged for "gas money" when they go to news events. At worst, they told how some newspapers extort money from government officials by printing articles in their name without the officials' knowledge. Often this will take the form of congratulatory messages on the prime minister's birthday or a similar occasion. The newspaper will then bill the official for the article; if the official refuses to pay, the paper will print that he or she owes the paper money. One Cambodian journalist added that some media organizations in Cambodia did not consider this a grave breach of professional ethics.

Return to Top of Page

3 March 2002--Doubly a Victim

An underage Vietnamese girl, the alleged victim of a human trafficking ring that brought her to Cambodia, has now run away from the relief agency caring for her after a Cambodian judge decided to investigate her for illegal entry into Cambodia and threatened to imprison her here. She was already terrified of testifying against the traffickers because the trial date had been postponed twice, and with this decision of the judge she just took off in the middle of the night. Of course she's not here legally! That is what trafficking is all about! Makes you wonder if the judge has some connection with the traffickers.

Return to Top of Page

1 March 2002--Cross-border Gambling

Every day more than 1,000 Thai people, mostly ethnic Chinese who dominate Thailand's economy, cross the Thai-Cambodian border to gamble in Poipet, an impoverished northwestern Cambodian town which hosts seven lavish casinos, with an eighth on the way. Banned from gambling in their own country, about 500,000 Thais annually spend about $400 million in the 18 border casinos in their poorer neighboring countries of Cambodia, Burma, and Laos. Although legally in Cambodia, the casinos are off-limits to most of its citizens, and inside the casinos only Thai is spoken and only the Thai baht is accepted as a currency. In addition, little of the money wagered and lost in the casinos stays in Cambodia because their owners are often Thai business families.

Return to Top of Page

20 February 2002--New Game in Town

A western man riding on an old motorcycle in Phnom Penh felt a car coming uncomfortably close, so he kept pulling more toward the side of the street. The car kept coming after him until it clipped him, at which time a one-star general of the Cambodian army jumped out of the car enraged and demanding $5000 for damages to his car (which received a slight scratch.) The cornered ex-pat eventually gave him $2,500 in what is emerging as the latest twist to corruption by the Cambodian government and military in this poor country. When the man went to the US Embassy about it, he was told they know about the practice but there isn't much they can do (probably because the general is protected by those higher up.)

Return to Top of Page

23 January 2002--The Campaign Begins

Political campgaining in Phnom PenhLast weekend official campaigning began for the first-ever commune elections to be held in Cambodia. (Communes are groupings of villages.) Here part of a convoy of CPP supporters (the ruling government party) parade through Phnom Penh. It takes real courage to campaign as an opposition candidate. Fifteen have been murdered in the last year, including one woman candidate on each of three successive days two weeks ago. The CPP is commonly believed to be behind the murders.

Return to Top of Page

Go to Cambodia main page
Go to Charlie Dittmeier's home page