Politics of Poverty

Is Cambodia’s political crisis an opportunity to advance transparency and accountability?

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Photo: Patrick Brown / Oxfam America

Cambodia’s political crossroads is shaping how much room there is for debate on economic and social policy, as well as institutional reforms.

Omar Ortez is the Senior Policy Advisor on Active Citizenship at Oxfam America.

The government crackdown on Cambodian protesters last January that left five garment factory workers shot dead, 39 people injured, and 23 incarcerated happened during a nationwide strike in which workers called for a minimum wage increase. [1]

Young people, who have migrated from the countryside to the cities, work for monthly wages as low as 60 dollars. From this income, many try to sustain their families by sending remittances back to their localities. Here, land grabs by dubious foreign investors and domestic political elites are hurting rural livelihoods. A wave of evictions has left an estimated 20 percent of Cambodians landless. This is a group that has grown increasingly disenfranchised and willing to take the streets, where people’s shouts reveal that employment, migration, and depleted rural economies are all interconnected.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government responded first by cracking down protests and then issuing a ban on freedom of assembly. Both the protests and government’s more aggressive posture towards its critics should be placed in the context of a much larger political crossroads. Beyond partisan politics [2], a resolution to the crisis that leads to political accountability and translates into accountability of public institutions matters because it will shape how much room there is for real debate on economic and social policy; and will ensure that any agreements are followed through. This is relevant for citizens who want to have a greater say on how public expenditures can be better used to improve their lives. And for citizens who want to ensure that the political space where they can ask questions and defend their rights remains open. The incoming parliament is likely to debate legislation that could either restrict or enable citizens’ rights. New Freedom of Information legislation is currently in the works, while the threat of the government pushing forward a restrictive Law on the Association of Non-Government Organizations (LANGO) is still looming. There is also talk of a Cyber Security Law which could potentially be a threat to youth organizing through social media.

The international business community seems to get the big political picture. On a positive note, they made public statements requesting investigations on the killings and solutions through negotiations. They know all too well that political instability is bad for business. The January protest crackdown took place near an industrial park that is home to factories supplying to global brands such as Adidas, Puma, and H&M. News stories covering human rights violations by garment industry suppliers can easily turn in to brand risk.

The reactions of the international donor community have been mixed. The US government, the European Parliament, and the UN condemned the Cambodian government crackdown on protesters and have called for a negotiated way out of the crisis. However, the IMF decided to remain silence about corruption and governance issues while protests were under way. The international community can and should be more assertive in getting both parties to the table, so that agreements negotiated over the next few months can strengthen civil society space and ensure more democratic accountability in Cambodia. Cambodian civil society and the international community of donors and global citizen’s networks should act together to move the country forward on an agenda of more transparent and accountable governance – bringing an access to information law to existence would be a good first step. At the same time, they should also prevent any restrictive NGO law from passing; or any cyber law aimed at curtailing  citizens’ ability to organize and speak up to even be considered. The way in which the Cambodian civil society and the international community galvanized themselves against the 2011 NGO Law is a good example to follow.

Evidence from human rights campaigns and treaties shows that in the process of enacting political and institutional reforms, the best scenarios in which international support can be effective is when things are already moving in-country.

Well, citizens in Cambodia are moving. Will the international community follow?

[1] As this blog post goes online 21 activists remain in custody while two were released on bail.
[2] A gridlock between the ruling (Cambodian People’s Party -CPP) and opposition (Cambodian National Rescue Party -CNRP) parties has persisted since last July’s polls gave the ruling party 68 parliamentary seats and 55 seats to the opposition. Claiming serious irregularities, the opposition refused to accept the results and has boycotted parliament and held protests demanding the resignation of Hun Sen (in power for 28 years) and new elections.
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