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Cambodia’s ‘fragile’ decade: Kingdom ranked poorly in stability index

Prime Minister Hun Sen, seen through a door at a National Assembly session in February where controversial changes to the Law on Political Parties were approved.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, seen through a door at a National Assembly session in February where controversial changes to the Law on Political Parties were approved. Pha Lina

Cambodia’s ‘fragile’ decade: Kingdom ranked poorly in stability index

With the ruling party ominously invoking the possibility of war as elections draw near, a new index suggests the Kingdom is indeed at risk of instability – not thanks to outside challenges to the CPP, but to the government’s own opacity and lack of accountability.

The Fragile States Index’s annual ranking of countries draws on a combination of qualitative and quantitative data covering a range of social, economic and political factors to measure the stability of 178 countries.

Published by Washington, DC-based nonprofit Fund For Peace, the report scores countries and gives them a status of “sustainable”, “stable”, “warning” or “alert”. The Kingdom this year ranked 50th-most fragile on the list, with a “high warning” status, scoring poorly in indicators that evaluate the legitimacy of elections, as well as the transparency and accountability of government.

Despite years of economic growth, and progress in sectors such as education and health, the index found that Cambodia’s political “fragility” has remained virtually unchanged over the course of a decade, which observers yesterday pinned on the government’s lack of democratic reform.

Dr Markus Karbaum, a political scientist who specialises in Cambodia and is familiar with the report, noted in an email yesterday that the country’s political system only appears stable superficially.

“In fact it is a shaky house of cards,” he writes, adding that only through physical force, strong economic growth, a divided opposition and a political culture of “tight social hierarchies and obedience” has the Kingdom avoided a political collapse over the years.

For Karbaum, many within the ruling party have “made themselves too comfortable” and failed to enact major reforms in the areas of rule of law, efficient public administration, transparency, accountability and decentralisation of power. This status quo has, in turn, led the electorate to be “fed up with the growing structural inconsistencies, in particular social inequality”.

But the main source of so-called fragility in Karbaum’s view is Prime Minister Hun Sen’s repeated threats of war and civil war if the opposition party were to claim victory in the upcoming commune and national elections.

“Many perceive his comments about war and civil war not as prediction, but rather as a threat as he is the de-facto commander-in-chief of Cambodia’s most relevant security forces. The use of violence to crack down political dissent and the limitation of democratic competition are clearly aspects that favour fragility,” he wrote.

Mu Sochua, a senior leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, noted that such remarks by the premier, which have been echoed by Minister of Defence Tea Banh, point to “fear” of defeat.

“Their message of fear is a very poor and desperate strategy to deter the courage of voters, but it’s too late,” she said in an email last night.

The hotly contested 2013 elections, which the CPP won by a relatively tight margin, serve as a “clear indicator of the poor performance of the CPP in the past decades”, she wrote.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan, however, defended the party’s rule, pointing to their uninterrupted record of electoral victories as evidence that undercuts the report’s findings.

“It’s just their idea, but every election there were hundreds of thousands of national and international observers,” he said, adding that the 2013 election was ultimately deemed legitimate by the international community and “therefore it is not up to the Fund For Peace” to judge.

Addressing the issues of transparency and accountability, Eysan again deflected questions to point to the election victory.

“If the government has no accountability, the election would not give a positive result,” he said, before going on to dismiss the entire report as part of a conspiracy against the regime.

“It’s the ambition and trickery of opposition groups. It is like this, and soon [Human Rights Watch Asia Division Executive Director] Brad Adams and Human Rights Watch … will join locally and internationally to topple the CPP,” he said.

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