Marston, John (2000) “Camboya.” Asia Pacífico No. 7, pp. 138-168.  English version below:



CAMBOYA 1999, by John Marston 


            In late November, 1998, after months of negotiation, a coalition was finally worked out between Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Front for an Independent, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (known by the French acronym FUNCINPEC), allowing a government to be formed.  CPP had won the July elections by a plurality but could only constitutionally form a government with a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly, making an eventual coalition with FUNCINPEC a foregone conclusion.  However, FUNCINPEC, determined to negotiate for a strong position in the government, joined with the only other party in serious contention, the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), in staging mass demonstrations against alleged irregularities in the July elections.  The three-week turbulent period of demonstrations and their violent suppression, from late August through the first half of September, 1998, set the stage for the drawn-out negotiations which followed.

            The linchpin of the November agreement was the creation of a Senate.  The creation of the new body meant that key political players could all have conspicuous positions in the government.  The CPP president of the National Assembly, Chea Sim, would become president of the Senate, leaving room for the National Assembly to be headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, leader of FUNCINPEC and former first Prime Minister.  CPP’s Hun Sen, Prime Minister during most of the socialist 1980’s, and second Prime Minister from 1993 to 1998, would once again become sole Prime Minister.  He was sworn in on December 1.   (The SRP argued that, other than as a way of breaking the deadlock, there was no need or constitutional logic to creating a Senate in Cambodia.  On the street Cambodians quipped that it was just a device to give criminal immunity to a few more politicians.)

            The settlement also involved an agreement whereby the two parties would share control of ministries of defense and interior (with co-ministers), amnesty for key figures, and, reportedly, a major financial settlement reimbursing Ranariddh for losses incurred in the 1997 coup.[1]  The terms negotiated for a privately owned but FUNCINPEC-affiliated television are illustrative.  The station had been CPP-controlled since the coup.  Now FUNCINPEC regained control of the station but CPP bought a 40% share and would have its representative present at the station.[2]  Thus FUNCINPEC enjoyed nominal control and profited financially while CPP was in a position to exercise checks on it as a political entity.  The terms for the return of the FUNCINPEC radio station were still being negotiated in summer, 1999.  (SRP was consistently denied permission to open a radio station.)

            In general there were few public cracks in the alliance between CPP and FUNCINPEC during 1999, although few could doubt that long-standing animosities could easily surface again, such as when district and commune elections take place in late 2000, or in connection with a power struggle in the event of the death of the king, Norodom Sihanouk, reportedly in failing health. 

            The smaller SRP enjoyed remarkable latitude as a vocal and articulate opposition during much of 1999, perhaps because of he delicacy of the power-sharing agreements in general, because it enjoyed good relations with the international press, or because it had demonstrated its capacity, in the wake of the 1998 elections, to generate mass demonstrations on its behalf.  Once again, though, few could doubt that if political tensions arose it would once again be vulnerable to intimidation.  The September detention of two SRP officials in connection with an alleged 1998 assassination attempt on Hun Sen, and the kidnapping of an SRP National Assembly member in October might be signs that it was once again the target of CPP violence.  (CPP and the Hun Sen government denied any connection to the kidnapping and the press reported that part of the ransom was paid by the government).  Rainsy continues to maintain that Hun Sen was personally responsible for grenade attacks on one of his 1997 rallies, and in September, 1999 he called for the United States to arrest Hun Sen at the time of the prime minister’s visit to the United Nations -- typical of his provocative, self-dramatizing stance and an indication of the ferocity of the animosity between the two parties.[3]

            On December 4, 1998 Khmer Rouge guerrilla commanders finalized an agreement to turn their troops over to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, effectively ending the guerrilla movement.  This meant that, after 30 years of war and social turmoil, the country was finally at peace.  Political figures, motivated by various agendas, continued to play on the possibility that fighting would resume;  the average Cambodian, for whom small-scale war had been part of the national consciousness for so many years, likewise remained cynical about the possibility that peace would last.  Nevertheless, a return to war with the Khmer Rouge was extremely unlikely. 

            Throughout 1999, Hun Sen and CPP worked to build the image of the country as peaceful and stable under the new government. Critics inevitably raised questions about the cost of peace and the nature of the consolidation of power that accompanied it.  The visitor to Cambodia could not help but feel that the country was more stable.  A government campaign to collect weapons which began in April meant, at the most fundamental level, that one no longer heard guns being fired at night in the capital.  (It also meant, perhaps, that CPP had a monopoly on weapons.)  After a crackdown the year before, one no longer saw soldiers demanding money on the highways.  A visitor who had known Phnom Penh over several years could not help being amazed to see traffic actually stopping at stoplights.  New rural roads and a highway from Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham, built with foreign aid, helped give an overall impression of progress and greater orderliness of infrastructure. 

            Nevertheless, the problems facing the country remain staggering: endemic poverty, the debilitating effect on agriculture of the rape of the nation’s forests, landgrabbing by the military and other powerful officials, the incredibly rapid spread of HIV infection, the slow breakdown of state services related to the inability of the government to pay civil servants (including teachers) a living wage, wide-spread corruption and impunity.  Those sympathetic to Hun Sen and CPP gave them credit for the peace and the beginnings of stability and said that this opened up space for addressing other pressing problems.  Those critical of Hun Sen and CPP said that the problems were intrinsic to the way power was exercised by CPP.

            In Phnom Penh, and possibly in the country more generally, the legitimacy of CPP political authority was far from universally accepted.  Opposition figures may have exaggerated the extent of fraud in the 1998 elections; nevertheless, for a large segment of the population, the charges rang true to the experience of chronic political coercion at the local level.  People in Phnom Penh have still not forgotten the looting by soliders in the 1997 coup or the violence against demonstrators, including Buddhist monks, in 1998.  These abuses may over time be forgotten if Hun Sen can genuinely bring stability and prosperity, but they have not been forgotten yet. 

            One of the most oddly resonant events of 1999 was the shooting death in July of Piseth Pilaka, a classical dancer, actress, and star of music video.  The shooting took place on a public street in broad daylight, and the actress lay in critical condition in a hospital bed for a week before dying. A seven-year-old niece was also wounded in the shooting. The story became a fascinating demonstration of the ways popular myth, media iconography, and rumor could reflect and color politics and the social organization of power. The shooting galvanized the attention of the Cambodian public in ways that recall the death of Princess Diana.  Tens of thousands bought the media accounts of the shooting and flocked to the funeral.[4] [5]  The fascination reflected genuine sympathy for a beloved cultural icon.  But it also related to reports that the actress’ death was connected to her romantic involvement with a high-ranking politician.  Rumors focused on the hated chief of the national police Hok Lundy and on Hun Sen himself.  The press consistently implied that the killing was arranged by the political figure’s wife, but it should be noted that at the level of rumors in widespread circulation, there was the suggestion that the politician had himself ordered the death.  In October, the French magazine L’Express claimed that the actress’ diary recounted a love affair with Hun Sen and pointed to Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany, as responsible for arranging the shooting; the magazine also claimed that on her deathbed the actress had named Bun Rany to several people.  She quickly denounced these charges.[6]  On October 13 Bun Rany announced that she would press charges against L’Express for defamation, and specific allegations were made against SRP for fabricating the story.  It is hard to speculate how deep the political ramifications of this event may prove to be or to what extent they could actually serve to mobilize political action.  Despite the diary, which Hun Sen’s wife claims was forged, there as yet seems to be no clear evidence against Hun Sen or his wife.  The significance of the event, though, probably lies not so much in relation to the truth behind the rumors as to the fact that the rumors exist and have captured the imagination of so many Cambodians (regardless of the question of the extent they have been promoted by the political opposition). The rumors implicating Hun Sen may be a more devastating picture of his political position if they are false than if they are true, if they thereby reflect a widespread need to mythify  a sense of the illegitimacy of power in the country and its ability to act with impunity.

            News reports about Cambodia during the year were dominated by public discussion over the issue of bringing Khmer Rouge figures to trial.  If this issue had little direct bearing on the everyday life of ordinary Cambodians, it was a matter of great symbolic importance and political complexity, relating as it did to 1) the costs of the recent peace, 2) Cambodia’s need to define its relation to the violence of its recent history (and what that relation symbolized to the rest of the world), 3) the development of a system of justice in Cambodia, and 4) Cambodia’s attempt to define itself as a modern nation state in relation to the community of nation states.  The negotiations were also significant for the global precedents they set for the prosecution of genocide and the idea of systems of justice operating on the transnational level.  Not the least of the ironies surrounding the discussion was the fact that most of the key players -- CPP, the Cambodian opposition, the UN, the U.S. -- were assuming positions very different from what they had assumed in the past. 

            The call to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to trial in an international tribunal had been made since the early 1980’s, but it is only in recent years that the international will existed to follow this through.  This may have been related to the fact that only since 1994 was there general diplomatic recognition of the Phnom Penh government and even more recently that the Khmer Rouge had become weak enough that their capture was a ready possibility, making trial of key figures conceivable.  Attempts were being made to bring Pol Pot to trial when he died in April, 1998.  As the Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement deteriorated, a number of key figures defected to the Phnom Penh government, notably former Khmer Rouge Minister of Foreign Relations Ieng Sary. In late December, 1998, two weeks after the greater part of  the Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement turned itself over to Cambodian armed forces, the key figures Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan surrendered to the Phnom Penh government in what was apparently an amnesty deal.  They made public appearances before the press, during one in which they made a brief apology for the events of the Pol Pot period and asked for the past to be forgotten.  Human rights organizations protested the Cambodian government’s apparent willingness to do just that and called for their trial.  (Human Rights Watch would eventually even propose that donor countries should withhold aid from Cambodia if Khmer Rouge leaders were not prosecuted for genocide.[7])  Hun Sen in different statements sometimes seemed to accept the idea of a trial and sometimes didn’t.  In late January, the troops under the sole remaining major Khmer Rouge figure, Ta Mok, surrendered to the government.  Ta Mok remained under the control of the Thai military for a period, but in early March, in response to international pressure, was arrested and turned over to Cambodian authorities.  It seemed that, in response to the calls for a trial, Ta Mok would be tried if no one else.  As the press speculated on various scenarios for an International Tribunal, Hun Sen was evasive about his position and had put forward various proposals, including the idea of a truth commission.  Once Ta Mok was arrested  he made clear that he would be tried, but that the trial must be in Cambodia and under the authority of the Cambodian judicial system.  This cast doubt on the possibility of any kind of international tribunal.  When a UN panel issued a report on March 17 that called for the establishment of an international tribunal to try some 20-30 Khmer Rouge leaders in an Asian country other than Cambodia, Hun Sen made clear his rejection of this -- but did declare his openness to the help of international experts for the local trial.  Originally this help was not to include prosecutors.  However, in response to protests, Hun Sen later agreed to have a minority of foreign judges at the trial.  Reports varied as to whether Khmer Rouge leaders other than Ta Mok would face trial. 

            In April, the notorious head of the Pol Pot era detention center, Kaing Khek Iev, known as Duch, surfaced.[8]  Duch had worked for many  years for a foreign NGO under another name, and had converted to Christianity with an Evangelical group in 1996.   Even his family reportedly did not know his background.   A representative of the NGO he worked for said, “He was our best worker, highly respected in the community, clearly very intelligent and dedicated to helping the refugees.”  Duch, in an early interview, said, “For the trial of myself, I don’t worry, it is up to Hun Sen and Jesus.”[9]  Duch disappeared for a period and human rights organizations expressed fears that he might be killed by Khmer Rouge who feared his testimony in a trial.  He was then brought into custody under the pretext that he needed protection, but it was soon announced that, like Ta Mok, he would also be brought to trial.  It remains possible that only Ta Mok and Duch will be brought to justice. 

            In August a UN team came to Cambodia to negotiate an agreement for international involvement in the trial.  They were reportedly optimistic that Cambodia would finally agree to have a majority of international prosecutors, but Hun Sen was not flexible on this point.  Talks broke down and press reports indicated that there would no longer be cooperation between the UN and the Cambodian government on a trial. However, in late October, a new proposal was put forward which seemed to hold promise for agreement.  Acccording to the new plan, Cambodia would have three our of five prosecutors, but any decision would have to be made with a “super majority” of more than just three prosecutors.

            Hun Sen, in a September meeting with the UN, said,

In holding this trial, we will carefully balance, on the one hand, the need for providing justice to our people who were victims of this genocidal regime, and to finally put behind us the dark chapter of our national history with, on the other hand, the paramount need for continued national reconciliation and the safeguard of the hard-gained peace as well as national independence and sovereignty, which we value the most.[10]


The issue remains complicated.  The long-standing implications of such a trial are significant, and the fears of those calling for an international tribunal, that justice will be partial or biased by political considerations in a trial operating within a still very shaky Cambodian legal system, is legitimate.  Whether the trial is local or international, the possibility that only a small number of Khmer Rouge leaders will be tried (and even the 20-30 proposed by the UN is very small) calls into question the very idea of the justice of a trial and what this “justice” will finally symbolize to the Cambodian people.  On the other hand, the issues of sovereignty raised by Hun Sen should not be brushed aside, and it is unrealistic for foreign observers to think that they can overlook Hun Sen’s practical considerations for his own political survival. It remains to be seen whether the new compromise will indeed lead to a trial and whether the trial will be the beginnings of a search for an honorable and complete justice.


International Relations

            Cambodia’s planned membership in ASEAN was postponed at the time of the post-election unrest.  While by the time of the December, 1998 ASEAN meetings, the agreement had been worked out between CPP and FUNCINPEC, some ASEAN countries expressed hesitation about giving Cambodian membership until a working, stable government was actually formed.  As a compromise measure, ASEAN voted to accept Cambodian’s membership at special ceremonies in Hanoi in the indefinite future.  The divided voted reflected the mixed feelings in ASEAN toward the new government and Cambodia’s potential for stability.  The decision to hold the ceremony in Hanoi had to do with the fact that Vietnam, the mentor in the 1980’s of many of many CPP leaders, had been the strongest advocate of Cambodia’s acceptance in ASEAN.  The official ceremony of acceptance was finally held April 30.

            Nineteen-ninety-nine was a year of building international legitimacy for CPP and Hun Sen, who could claim, for the first time since 1994, that their power was authorized by national elections.  It was a year of mending relations of diplomacy and international aid which had been cut back at the time of the 1997 coup.  On December 7, 1998, the UN gave Cambodia’s seat to the new coalition government, after a 15-month absence.    In the course of the year, Cambodia established diplomatic relations with the five ASEAN countries in which it did not yet have embassies.  Hun Sen paid diplomatic visits to the ASEAN countries of Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Laos, as well as to the UN, Japan , France, Canada, Cuba, and China.

            Cambodia’s increasing diplomatic friendliness with China is significant, especially since during the 1980’s China supported the armed resistance, in opposition to the government of the current CPP leaders.  In July, at the time of diplomatic flare-ups between China and Taiwan, Cambodia made a strong statement in support on a “one-China” policy.[11]

            A summit was held in October of the leaders of the three former countries of French Indochina, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  They discussed the creation of a “development triangle” among the three countries.  The summit leaders emphasized to the press that matters related to ASEAN would not be discussed, but the meeting nevertheless led to speculation that the three countries might form a block within ASEAN. 

            Cambodia remains extremely dependent on foreign aid, which means that, for good or for bad, donors are in a position to focus the direction of development and pressure the country on reform. In late February sixteen donor countries and seven multilateral organizations met at a World Bank-sponsored forum in Tokyo to pledge support.  This meeting itself became a forum for discussion of the nature of international aid to Cambodia, and prior to the meeting NGO’s based in Cambodia lobbied for aid to stress the development of human resources, alleviation of poverty, and respect for the rule of law;  they also called for more communication about aid with actual grass-roots recipients.  Opposition leader Sam Rainsy took an even stronger stance and asked that the meeting be postponed  until Cambodia could demonstrate greater accountability.[12] [13]   The package of international donations finally put in place included monitoring mechanisms, and at three month intervals, monitors dutifully reported on Cambodia’s progress in instituting reforms.  Cambodia pledged at the meetings to reduce its armed forces and address the issue of illegal logging.[14] 

            Donors pledged 1.3 billions dollars US over three years, with aid for the first year 460 million.  Japan was the larger single donor, pledging 100 million dollars during the first year, the same amount pledged by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.[15]  Japan’s share of the total aid package was 22%, greater than it had been in 1996 or 1997.  It was also announced that Japan would resume yen-denominated loans to Cambodia for the first time in 30 years, including a loan of 3 billion yen ($25.4 million US) to repair the port of Sihanoukville. 

            China announced low interest loans to Cambodia of 150 million yuan ($18 million US) and grant aid of 40 million yuan ($4.8 million US).  The European Union pledged 3.84 million Euros ($4.3 million US) for victims of conflict and support to fight dengue fever.   (In May it pledged another $54 million US for agriculture and education and in June $5.5 million for humanitarian assistance in areas of the country formerly controlled by the Khmer Rouge.)  France pledged 15 million Francs to develop treatment for AIDS and to support technological training. The World Bank pledged $70.3 million US in loans.   While US aid continues to be much less than before the 1997 coup,  the U.S. Agency for International Development planned to give $14 million to Cambodia in 1999, and on July 16 the U.S. gave $3.4 million to Cambodian human rights and pro-democracy groups.

            The IMF, in a report issued in April, continued to hold up the promise of future loans, but maintained as a pre-condition a crackdown on corruption.  Discussions between Cambodia and IMF about resuming loans continued through much of the year and in late October IMF announced that it was granting an $81.6 million US loan.

            During the year, Cambodian had preliminary border talks with Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos.  Borders are an emotional issue among the general Cambodian population, for whom national identity is associated with the ancient Khmer empire and the idea of the tragic loss of Cambodian territory to its neighbors.  At issue, in addition to minor disputes about land territory, are also questions about overlapping claims to offshore areas potentially rich in natural gas.  Prince Ranariddh, after a visit to Vietnam, announced at the end of May that the two countries would resolve border disputes by the end of 2000.  More intensive talks were held with Thailand, with whom the end of the Khmer Rouge insurgency made easier the possibility of cleaning up mined areas along the border, defining border checkpoints, and re-establishing rail links, as well as the re-surveying work which will be necessary to demark boundaries.  Minor tensions between Thai and Cambodian troops along the border in June may have further motivated the countries to seek clearer demarcations.[16]  On July 1, while border talks were being held with Thailand in Phnom Penh, 150 Cambodian students, backed by SRP, rallied at the Institute of Technology and then marched to the Thai embassy, protesting alleged border incursions.[17] The following day, similar protests were made at the Vietnam embassy.  Later in the month, after three such rallies, Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai said that Thailand should not make an issue of these protests or calls by opposition members of the Cambodian National Assembly for the return of Surin province.[18]

            Although border issues may have been exaggerated by the Cambodian political opposition, any assessment of Cambodia’s international relations must recognize, from the broadest perspective, that the country remains vulnerable to political pressure by stronger countries and international organizations and, parallel to this, to the exploitation of transnational economic forces.  This vulnerability is even greater than that of other small countries because of the porousness of Cambodia’s borders and the country’s lack of effective legal controls -- although it is true that the fact that these issues are now widely discussed (often in connection with diplomatic agreements, police raids, or reports by international organizations) may mean they are beginning to be addressed. 

            Human resources flow into Thailand in the form of cheap labor (including sex workers and children organized to work as beggars), vulnerable to exploitation, economic vicissitudes, and legal expulsion.  Cambodian antiquities continue to be robbed and flow into international markets at an alarming rate.  Some progress was made during the year in establishing greater control over illegal logging and its massive export; nevertheless, questions remain about whether the impact on the environment of the remaining “legal” logging is truly sustainable.[19]  During summer, 1999, a Thai ecologist working in Cambodia made in conversation with a visiting researcher the anecdotal observation that fish from the Tonle Sap lake is cheaper in Thailand than in Cambodia; whether or not this can be proven, the observation resonated with the perception, accepted by many, that Cambodia has little capacity to manage the export of its resources for the best interest of its own people. 

            At the same time, Cambodia has been vulnerable as a dumping ground for expired foods and medicines -- and, in one major scandal which arose during the year, hazardous waste.[20]  The waste, from a Taiwanese corporation, was dumped at a site near the port of Sihanoukville in December, 1998, after an agreement with Cambodian customs officials. Villagers, as is common in Cambodia, began scavenging the site, and panic broke out when dockworkers who had unloaded the waste sickened.  Two deaths were possibly linked to the exposure to the waste. One man also died during a demonstration, and four people died and thirteen were injured in traffic accidents as residents fled the city in panic.[21]  After weeks of negotiations, demonstrations, and accusations, the waste was finally removed by the Taiwanese company which had brought it. 

            Since the 1980’s, an unstated factor of the Cambodian economy has been its role as a transit point in the smuggling of goods between Thailand and Vietnam.  Now Cambodia, which is not a major drug producer itself, is believed to play a role in drug trafficking.  Many of the small international banks in Phnom Penh are said to engage in money laundering.[22]  The most recent item to be smuggled is immigrants: 225 Chinese illegal immigrants were intercepted in September and returned to China, believed to be using residence in Cambodia as a way of migrating illegally to Western countries such as Australia or the U.S.[23]


Business and Economy

            On January 1, Cambodia established a 10% Value Added Tax, in part to replace customs revenues, which are to be reduced in connection with Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN and participation in the ASEAN Free Trade Area.  VAT is the first of a series of proposed new taxes, and will be followed by the introduction of land and personal income taxes.  There were reports of confusion about VAT and inconsistent enforcement, perhaps relating to the fact that VAT was put in place quickly in response to international pressure.[24]  The garment industry was able to lobby for exemption.[25]   A May survey found that few market vendors even knew about the existence of VAT, reflecting the fact that the tax was not yet applied in outdoor markets.[26]   Nevertheless, a September report by the Ministry of Economy and Finance showed that as a result of VAT, government revenues increased 82% during the first half of the year.[27]

            An end-of-the-year World Bank report for 1998 showed that Cambodian GNP had not grown at all during that year.  Political turmoil beginning in 1997, occurring at about the same time as the Asian Economic Crisis, had an effect, similar to the crisis in neighboring countries, in curtailing economic growth.  Since then the country has been unable to repeat the 6% growth it had averaged in the previous five years.  The stagnant economy in 1998 was attributed to drought and continuing political unrest.[28] [29]  Given the greater stability, observers predicted a 3% growth in GDP in 1999.[30]   The Cambodian population in Phnom Penh remains acutely aware of the economic setbacks in 1997, and average urban citizens talked to in Phnom Penh in mid-1999 continued to stress the country’s economic stagnation, suggesting that the modest gains in the economy during the year and the boost to the economy of foreign aid had as yet made relatively little impact on national consciousness. 

            The rate of new foreign investment fell dramatically during the first half of 1999, a fact attributed by different observers to a reaction against corruption and kidnappings, to land fraud, to the effect of the Asian crisis on neighboring countries, and to the fact that in January the U.S. imposed quotas on Cambodian garment imports.

            The strongest industry continued to be the garment sector -- to the extent that during the first nine months of 1999 exports grew almost 200 percent.[31]  The growth occurred in conjunction with the rapid increase in the numbers of factories.  Cambodian garments now represent one-third of its exports.  The growth continued throughout the year despite fears of the effect of U.S. quotas on the industry; the U.S. remains the market for over three quarters of Cambodian garment exports.  The Cambodian Ministry of Commerce claimed in September that manufacturers in other countries were fraudulently putting Cambodian labels on garments, causing Cambodia to lose its full quota allotments.  (Cambodia is more vulnerable to quotas than some of its competitors because it is not yet a member of the World Trade Organization.)

            With political stability, tourism, potentially a major sector of the Cambodian economy, also increased dramatically, up 49.5% in the first eight months of 1999, compared to the previous year.[32] 

            Both Honda and Suzuki opened up motorcycle assembly plants in mid-1999.

            At a more local level, in what seemed to be part of a larger pattern of working to establish more social control and the appearance to the world of social stability, the Phnom Penh municipal government continued during the year to clamp down on the informal economy of the city.  If a year earlier, most roadside gasoline vendors were gone, by mid-1999 they had virtually disappeared.  During the year the government began clamping down on unlicensed pharmacies; some moved to markets just outside the city limits.[33]  The city likewise clamped down on food vendors on park paths and announced that small-scale car-wash and motorcycle-wash outlets could no longer operate in the city.[34] [35] 



            The Cambodian labor movement has developed very quickly in conjunction with the equally rapid rise of the garment industry over the past five years.  The decision by the U.S. on January 20 to impose quotas on 12 categories of garments was in part a result of protests over labor conditions and as such a victory for Cambodian workers.[36]  Applying further leverage, the US announced that it would further raise quotas up to 14% if there were concrete improvement in working conditions.[37]  In conjunction with the review, union representatives met with a U.S. State Department official in June and embassy officials in September.  Commerce secretary Cham Prasith reported in September that the U.S. had acknowledged progress in labor conditions, indicating that quotas would probably be raised in November.[38]  Workers in September meetings with the U.S. embassy did favor the increase in quotas; nevertheless, there continued to be much evidence of serious problems of non-payment, underpayment, mistreatment of workers, and lack of security.  In July 150 garment workers fell ill in an incident relating to the use of chemicals in a factory.  Cambodian factory workers currently have a minimum wage of $40 US a month, which, even in Cambodian terms, is extremely low. (In mid-1999, 10 kilograms of rice cost the equivalent of $2.50 US, or one-sixteenth of a garment worker’s monthly wage; one kilogram of pork cost $3, or one thirteenth of a monthly wage.)  There were periodic strikes and rallies of garment workers throughout the year, including a September protest at the National Assembly. 

            There were also strikes by teachers and other government workers in early 1999.  Teachers began striking in late January.  They called for a living wage and claimed that current salaries, the equivalent of $15 to $20 US a month (and half what garment workers make), were not even enough to pay utilities.[39] [40]   (In conversation, government workers were more likely to speak in terms of their salaries not paying for a month’s worth of cigarettes.  It is widely recognized that Cambodian teachers, in order to make a living, are forced to ask for supplemental money from students, sometimes in direct correlation to exam results.) Strikers demanded an increase to $300 US a month.  In February, students began joining the rallies by striking teachers and Transport Ministry employees also went on strike.  Hun Sen declared that the government simply had no money.  By mid-September most striking workers had returned to work.  In April the government announced it would raise civil servant wages by 30%.[41]

            In April there was also a strike by workers at Cambodia’s most expensive hotel, Le Royal.

            In all, in the first half of 1999, 44 collective disputes and 33 strikes occurred, in addition to 123 individual labor disputes.  In September the government announced the formation, for the first time, of a Labor Advisory Council.  The 20-member council would include representatives of manufacturers, unions, and 10 ministries.[42]

            The number of Cambodians working in Thailand has been estimated at 82,000 -- some 12% of the labor force in the three Western provinces from which most of them come.[43]  This is roughly the same number as those working in the garment industry, an indication of the importance of these workers, generally overlooked, to the Cambodian economy as a whole.  Migrants include short-term migrants doing agricultural work near the Cambodian border and long-term migrants engaged in manufacturing, construction, dockwork, and fishing.  Many of the latter have been effected by the Asian economic crisis and large numbers of them have already had to return to Cambodia.  Since the crisis, there have been calls in Thailand for the expulsion of foreign workers, and the issue continued to be debated in 1999.  In August, Thailand authorized provincial governors to grant work permits to foreigners from adjacent countries employed in 18 business sectors where there are chronic shortages of workers.  These workers have permission to work until the following August.  In November, Thai authorities announced an active campaign to expel workers without permits.[44]

            In late June, Thai and Cambodian officials signed a memorandum setting up a program, sponsored by the United Nations Children’s Fund, to combat beggar trafficking networks which have been shown to be smuggling Cambodian children into Thailand.  The children, begging on Bangkok streets and in tourist areas, were said to be in a kind of slave labor, and had to turn most of the money over to traffickers.[45]


Agriculture and Fishing

            The core of the Cambodian economy continues to be rice farming.  A recent survey of rural households found that for 85% of them, rice farming was a major source of income. 

            While in October, 1998, the Ministry of Agriculture predicted a shortfall of rice, because of drought, pest infestation, and some flooding, the country ended up producing a small surplus.  The wet season rice crop, harvested in late 1998 and early 1999, was 2.7 million tons, compared with 2.6 million tons the previous year.   With the dry-season crop, harvested in April, total production was 3.48 million tons, up from 3.41 million tons the previous year, and representing a small surplus of 39,178 tons.[46] [47]  The Ministry of Agriculture predicted in October that the 1999 May-November wet-rice crop would increase to 3 million tons, meaning that the surplus of the year would double, to 60,000 tons.[48]   Surpluses were offset by a mid-year drop in rice prices, said to be related to the success of the Vietnamese rice crop, which meant less demand from that country.[49]  Much rice continues to be smuggled to Thailand and Vietnam, making statistical analyses unreliable. 

            The more specialized rubber crop faced even severer problems of low prices. While prior to 1970, rubber was a major Cambodian export, the industry has never fully established itself since the war and is plagued by problems of aging trees, an inability to keep up with modern techniques of cultivation, and widespread theft and smuggling of latex from state plantations.  With the help of World Bank funding, Cambodia has put in place a plan to increase production both by encouraging smallholdings and increasing state plantations, as well as by giving state plantations more autonomy.  In July government rubber officials announced the goal of doubling rubber production by 2020.[50]  Nevertheless, the same officials announced in October that production had fallen 8 percent because farmers, facing low prices, were cutting down trees to sell the wood.[51]  The fall in prices is seen as directly related to the effect of the Asian crisis on rubber production in other Asian countries. 

            Fish catches were reported down 40%, due to record low water levels.[52]  There was also, however, speculation that catches were being underreported.

            Government and private industry promoted agricultural diversification.  There were reports during the year of attempts, in different parts of the country, to develop production of sugar cane, maize, tapioca, and palm oil.  (A palm oil plantation was established in Kampong Speu province using the labor of 99 resettled squatter families from Phnom Penh.[53] ) In response to international pressure, Cambodia also announced during the year that it was attempting to eliminate marijuana cultivation in the country.


Social Welfare and Health

            All aspects of Cambodian life are colored by the profound and widespread presence of poverty in the country. Opposition politicians even claimed that, despite massive foreign aid during the 1990’s, rural poverty had increased.  A joint UNICEF and World Food Program study from early 1999 showed that, in a rural sample, 20% of children under five years of age suffered severe malnutrition.  49% of the children were short for their age and 61% underweight.  An earlier UN study, released in December, 1998, showed that Cambodia had the highest malnutrition rates in E. Asia, and the highest in all of Asia except Afghanistan; according to this study, Cambodians averaged only 1,980 calories per day in food intake, less than North Korea, where famine has been widely reported in the international press.[54] [55]

            According to an October UNDP report, 36% of Cambodians fall below the poverty line.  The study found great disparity between villages, such that, among the poorest 20% of villages, more than 70% of the population was poor, whereas only 4% of the population is poor in the richest 20% of villages.[56]

            Reports of a census, released in September, showed that only 29% of households have access to safe drinking water and only 15% have electricity.  90% relied on firewood as their only cooking fuel.  One quarter of children between seven and fourteen are not attending school.[57]

            According to a World Food Programme report, Cambodians in the former war zones of the north and west are especially vulnerable to poverty and malnutrition. 

            Studies released during the year showed Cambodia to have the most rapid rate of HIV infection in Asia.  In March, a UN AIDS program official said that 3-4% of Cambodian adults -- or some 180,000 people -- were infected.[58]  The problem is believed to be related to lack of education and to widespread prostitution.  Surveys showed that more than 60% of Cambodian men visit brothels regularly.  Nearly half of Cambodia’s 20,000 prostitutes are infected.  The infection, of course, is then passed to wives;  2.4% of married women are infected.  Infection is especially severe among Cambodia’s armed forces, among whom 12 to 17% are HIV-infected.[59] 

            Throughout the year, AIDS education programs were intensified.  On June 1, the Asian Development Bank announced an $8.2 million US program to fight the spread of AIDS in six Mekong River countries, including Cambodia.  There was much discussion during the year of how to control prostitution and HIV infection in brothels; many organizations advocated the legalization of prostitution.  The introduction of female condoms in brothels was discussed.[60]  In August, Phnom Penh authorities announced plans to expel foreign prostitutes, mostly Vietnamese.[61]   In September, health officials announced plans to make use of condoms mandatory in sex establishments, and soon later, the Ministry of Interior announced to all police chiefs that they should make it known to the policemen under them that it was mandatory for them to wear condoms in brothels.[62] 

            In a more positive trend, the rates of persons killed or injured by land mines (a problem often identified with Cambodia) fell rapidly.  Whereas in 1992, there were 300-500 landmine victims a month, there were now only 50-100.  The 54 landmine victims in January, 1999 compared to 201 in January, 1998.  The fall in the number of landmine victims is attributed to public education and success in marking off mine fields.[63]


Human Rights

            In Summer, 1999, an international human rights worker based in Phnom Penh told this researcher that specifically political human rights abuses, of the sort that had been so conspicuous after the 1998 unrest, had died down and that his work was now more focused on more “routine” human rights abuses deeply engrained in the fabric of Cambodian society: impunity and the torture and maltreatment of prisoners.  This reduction of political human rights abuses could make this seem like an optimistic assessment, except for the gravity of the “routine” human rights abuses, and the fact that, without fundamental changes in law and social expectation, the continuing culture of impunity will eventually lead again to political abuses. 

            In September, two SRP party officers were detained on shaky evidence for having participated in setting off a rocket bomb the year before and in October an SRP Nation Assembly member was kidnapped.  It is a sign of the general fragility of the human rights climate that this immediately set off worry in the human rights community that a new wave of repression against SRP was starting.[64]  (It is typical of the pattern of political repression in Cambodia that, in the case of the kidnapping, just as in a March killing of a provincial SRP party officer, it is not always clear what is merely crime and what is political intimidation.)  At approximately the same time, soldiers broke into the home of FUNCINPEC Senator Nhek Bun Chhay while he was out of the country; they threatened family members with guns, beat his wife on the head with a rifle butt, and stole cash and jewelry.  Nhek Bun Chhay is a former general; his activities mobilizing FUNCINPEC troops were allegedly one of the reasons for the 1997 coup.[65]

            There was much talk during the year, among Cambodian human rights and NGO communities, of the “culture of impunity,” discussion prompted in party by the June publication of a report on this topic by two Cambodian human rights organizations, Adhoc and Licadho, together with the international organization Human Rights Watch.[66]  (Discussions of impunity in Cambodia during the year also inevitably reflected the attention in the press to the negotiations over the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders and the unsolved killing of Piseth Pelika.)  The human rights report discussed such issues as the lack of neutrality of the armed forces, the availability of weapons, the lack of an independent judiciary, and poor cooperation between police and courts, and recounted specific case studies of how impunity functioned in Cambodia.  According to the report 263 persons were allegedly killed by police, military, militia and civil servants between Jan. 1997 and October 1998, but almost none of these killings have been investigated or punished.

            A major target of the report was a Cambodian law which required judges to get permission from the superiors of civil servants before they could prosecute them.  In August, in a significant development, the law was amended, giving judges the freedom to prosecute civil servants.  Human rights workers, however, were not pleased with the new amendment, since it still required the judge to inform the accused civil servant’s superior at least 72 hours in advance of arrest.[67]

            A cause celebre during the year was the arrest of two Cambodian human rights workers,  Meas Minear and Kim Sen, staff of he Cambodian NGO Licadho.  They were arrested in Sihanoukville on Dec. 21, where they were investigating complaints and monitoring demonstrations in connection with the controversy surrounding a hazardous waste dumping.  This was the first time human rights workers had been arrested since human rights organizations received permission to operate in the country in 1993.  Ten demonstrators were also arrested.  International and local human rights organizations immediately called for the release of the human rights workers.[68]  After a month of detention, a Phnom Penh appeals court ordered their release on bail.  Despite appeals by international human rights organizations and the Congressional Human Rights Caucus of the United States that the case be dropped, the two human rights workers were brought to trial in July under a charge of inciting unrest.  At this time they were finally acquitted, based on lack of evidence, as were seven other people, including two minors, accused of robbery during the demonstrations.[69]

            Land grabbing by military and government officials is recognized as a serious problem throughout the country.  The problem relates to the general problem of impunity, together with the fact that local officials have exploited confusion and ignorance about land title law as the country shifted from a socialist to a free-market economy.  One study showed that 70% of households had no legal documentation of ownership of their property.  Current land law is described as weak and full of loopholes, and land law reform was one of the issues raised at the February meeting of international donors in Japan.[70]

            The issue of land seizures is one that has been championed by the SRP political opposition, which organized rallies at the National Assembly by protesting farmers in May, June, July, and October.  One of numerous scandals relating to land disputes was the revelation during the year that areas newly cleared of landmines were then being seized by military officials. Hun Sen has publicly recognized the general problem of land seizures and criticized SRP for politicizing the issue.[71]

[1] Watkins, Huw.  “Reunion Costs Hun Sen a Princely Sum.”  SCMP, Nov. 28, 1998

[2] Interview with Prach Sim, Phnom Penh, Aug. 30, 1999. 

[3] Rainsy, Sam.  “Hun Sen Can Be Arrested in New York.”  E-mail message posted to camnews, Sept. 12, 1999l

[4] AFP.  “Thousands Attend Star’s Funeral.”  July 19, 1999.

[5] Reuters.  “Cambodian Newspapers Boom on Killing of Actress.”  July 15, 1999.

[6] Louyot, Alain.  “Enquete -- Révélations Sur Un Crime d’Etat.”  L’Express, Oct. 7-13, 1999, No: 2518.

[7] Voice of America.  “Cambodia/Aid.”  Feb. 19, 1999.

[8] Far Eastern Economic Review.  “Khmer Rouge chief executioner confesses to his past in exclusive REVIEW interview.”  April 28, 1999.

[9] Dunlop, Nic “KR Torture Chief Admits to Mass Murder.”  Phnom Penh Post, April 30-May 13, 1999, pp. 1, 10.

[10] Phnom Penh Post  “Hun Sen’s Speech to the United Nations: Statement by Samdech Hun Sen, Prime Minister of the Royal Government of Cambodia, to the Fifty-fourth Session of the United Nations General Assembly.”  Oct. 1-14, 1999, p. 13.

[11] Kyodo News Service  “Cambodia Supports China’s Statement on Taiwan.”  July 19, 1999.

[12] Sam Rainsy Party  “Statement”  Feb. 9, 1999.

[13] Reuters  “Cambodian Opposition Leader Blasts Japan on Aid.”  Feb. 22, 1999.

[14] Kyodo News Service  “Cambodia to Pledge Military, Forest Reforms in Tokyo.”  Feb. 22, 1999.

[15] Kyodo News Service  “Japan to Pledge 100 Mil. Dlrs in Aid to Cambodia.”  Feb. 24, 1999.

[16] The Nation (Bangkok)  “Cambodian Mixup Blamed for Border Row.”  June 4, 1999.

[17] Bangkok Post “Thailand Accused of Land Theft; Students Protest Outside Embassy.”  July 2, 1999.

[18] The Nation (Bangkok) “Cambodian Call ‘Not an Issue’.” July 23, 1999.

[19] Phnom Penh Post.  “Donors See Pluses and Minuses.”  June 11-24, 1999, p. 1.

[20] Maeda, Yuko and Im Sophea.  “Sale of Improperly Labeled, Unlicensed Food to be Banned.”  The Cambodian Daily, Aug. 9, 1999, p. 17.

[21] Chhay Sophal.  “Toxic Waste Sparks -Exodus from Cambodia Port City.”  Reuters, Dec. 21, 1999.

[22] South China Morning Post  “Poor Bank Staff Stage Own Theft.”  Oct. 7, 1999.

[23] Kyodo News Service  “Cambodia Sends Back over 200 Illegal Chinese.”  Sept. 23, 1999.

[24] Kyne, Phelim.  “Cambodia’s VAT Attack: More Pain than Gain.”  Phnom Penh Post, March 19-April, 1999, p. 14.

[25] Cambodian Development Review  “Economy Watch.”  Vol. 3:1, March, 1999, p. 17.

[26] Cambodian Development Review  “Economy Watch.”  Vol. 3:2, June, 1999, p. 15.

[27] Reuters.  “Cambodia Sees Higher H1 Revenues in New VAT.”  Sept. 15, 1999.

[28] Reuters.  “Cambodian Economy Stagnant in 1998 -- World Bank.” Jan. 31, 1999. 

[29] Kato, Toshiyasu.  “Impact of the Asian Crisis on the SEATEs.”  Cambodian Development Review.  Vol. 3:2, June, 1999, pp. 9-11.

[30] Oxford Analytica Daily Brief -- Cambodia.  June 4, 1999.

[31] Reuters.  “Cambodia Jan-Sept Garment Exports Up 200 Pct.”  Oct. 12, 1999.

[32] Reuters.  “Cambodian Tourist Arrivals Surge Nearly 50 Pct.”  Oct. 1, 1999.

[33] Chea Sotheacheath.  “Illegal Pharmacies Healthier than Patients.”  Phnom Penh Post, July 9-27, 1999, p. 5.

[34] Bou Saroeun.  “City Battles Footpath Business.”  Phnom Penh Post, July 9-23, 1999, p.12.

[35] Calvert, Brian and Phann Ana.  “City Targets Service Stations.”  The Cambodian Daily, Aug. 10, 1999, p. 13.

[36] Hayes, Michael and Samreth Sopha.  “The Changing Face of the Number One Industry.”  Phnom Penh Post, Jan. 22-Feb. 4, 1999, pp., 3, 5.

[37] Reuters.  “U.S. Might Raise Cambodian Garment Quota -- Official.”  July 15, 1999.

[38] Kyodo News Service.  “U.S. Happier with Labor Progress in Cambodia.”  Sept. 6, 1999.

[39] Reuters.  “Cambodian Teachers to Strike for More Pay.”  Jan. 24, 1999.

[40] Sopha, Samreth.  “Teachers Stay Out in ‘Hungry’ Strike.”  Phnom Penh Post, Feb. 5-18, 1999, p. 1.

[41] Reuters.  “Cambodia to Boost Civil Servant Wages by 30 Pct.”  April 2, 1999.

[42] Maeda, Yuko.  “Advisory Council Expected to Strengthen Labor Law.”  The Cambodia Daily, Sept. 6, 1999, p. 16.

[43] Chan Sophal and So Sovannarith.  “Cross-Border Migration Hit by Asian Crisis.”  Cambodian Development Review, Vol.3:1, March, 1999, pp. 1-4.

[44] Kyodo.  “Thailand to Deport 1 Million Illegal Workers.”  Nov. 2, 1999. 

[45] Johnson, Kay.  “Thailand, Cambodia to Fight Beggar Smugglers.”  The Straits Times, June 29, 1999. 

[46] Cambodian Development Review. “Economy Watch.”  Vol. 3:1, March, 1999, p. 15.

[47] Reuters.  “Cambodia to Produce Small Rice Surplus This Year.”  Feb. 5, 1999.

[48] Reuters.  “Cambodia Expects of to 60,000 Tonne Rice Surplus.”  Oct. 26, 1999. 

[49] Reuters.  “Cambodian Rice Prices Low on Weak Vietnam Demand.”  July 26, 1999. 

[50] Reuters.  “INTERVIEW -- Cambodian to Double Rubber by 2020.” July 2. 

[51] Reuters.  “Cambodian Rubber Output Hit as Farmers Fell Trees.”  Oct. 29, 1999. 

[52] Reuters.  “Cambodia Water Shortage Hitting Fish Stocks.”  Feb. 1, 1999.

[53] Bou Saroeun.  “Squatters Gear Up to Begin New Life on the Plantation.”  Phnom Penh Post, Dec. 25-Jan. 7, 1999, p. 8.

[54] Birsel, Robert.  “Poverty, Hunger Prolong Cambodia’s Pain.”  Reuters, Feb. 10, 1999.

[55] Hajiri, Nisid.  “Hunger’s Silent Victims.”  TIME Asia, May 17, 1999.

[56] UNDP.  “Press Release:  Poverty in Cambodia.”  Oct. 19, 1999.

[57] Reuters.  “Cambodia Needs Population Policy, Minister Says.”  Sept. 14, 1999. 

[58] Brunnestrom, David.  “INTERVIEW -- Cambodia Needs Urgent Action on AIDS -- UN.”  Reuters, March 29, 1999. 

[59] Cochrane, Joe.  “Troops Face Unseen Enemy as HIV Sweeps through Ranks.” South China Morning Post, March 31, 1999.

[60] AFP.  “Sex Trade Controls.”  April 1, 1999.

[61] Phnom Penh Post.  “Foreign Girls Unwelcome.”  Aug. 6-19, 1 999, p. 1.

[62] Johnson, Kay.  “Police to Arm against Aids.” South China Morning Post, Sept. 17, 1999. 

[63] Reuters.  “Cambodia’s Landmine Death Toll Tumbles.”  Feb. 24, 1999.

[64] Johnson, Kay.  “Rights Group Fear Escalation of Intimidation.”  South China Morning Post, Oct. 10, 1999.

[65] Bou Sarouen and Peter Sainsbury.  “Nhek Bun Chhay Mystified by Attack on Wife and Home.”  Phnom Penh Post, October 1-14, 1999, p. 3.

[66] Adhoc, Licadho, and Human Rights Watch.  Impunity in Cambodia: How Human Rights Offenders Escape Justice.  June, 1999. 

[67] South China Morning Post.  “Police, Military, Open to Prosecution as Controversial Law Changed.” Aug. 18, 1999.

[68] Human Rights Watch.  “Human Rights Watch Condemns Arrest of Human Rights Workers.”  Statement, Dec. 23, 1999.

[69] Ker Munthit.  “Rights Workers Cleared in Cambodia.”  July 21, 1999.

[70] Moorthy, Beth and Bou Saroeun.  “Battle for Secure Land Rights Criss-Crosses Kingdom.”  Phnom Penh Post, April 2-12, 1999, p. 4.

[71] AP.  “Cambodian Farmers Protest Land Grabs.”  Oct. 4, 1999.