On April 19, the US Department of State released the “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” its annual collection of human rights assessments for all the nations of the world. Cambodia’s entry (pdf here) is not particularly riveting when read as-written, appraising rights victories and abuses in a dispassionate, diplomatic monotone; however, it does succeed in shedding light on several important emerging trends. The overarching narrative is a complicated amalgam of land concessions, corruption and impunity, set against a backdrop of rapid economic growth.
Almost no rights issue provokes as visceral and strong a response as accusations of land grabbing at the expense of Cambodian nationals. Land ownership is a huge issue as the nation has struggled to recover from the forced collectivization practices of the Khmer Rouge that effectively left the population without any form of proper title to property. Title granting schemes developed under the 2001 land law have been ineffective and citizens frequently don’t have the capacity to officially claim their land. The report describes numerous incidents stemming from land conflicts, including two particularly infamous occurrences, one of which resulted in the accidental shooting death of a 14-year-old girl during an eviction attempt, and the other, the unjust arrest and detention of 13 Boeung Kak Lake villagers during a peaceful protest. The source of much of this unrest is the practice of granting land concessions, or providing land to outside actors in exchange for investment. Without title or effective recourse, the average citizen can find their land given away as a concession, even as they are actively residing on it, to private parties in exchange for bribes or further development assistance.
As troubling as these land conflicts would be in a vacuum, they are made worse by the knowledge that many are the result of self-aggrandizing deals made to enrich powerful members of the government and society. Corruption is technically outlawed, but enforcement has been lax and the powerful often act with impunity. As the report notes, “reported public experience with corruption [is] widespread,” and can be found top to bottom within the state. From an underpaid police force reliant on bribes to supplement low salaries, to reports of higher state officials involvment in illegal logging and drug trafficking, it is fair to describe corruption in Cambodia as systemic. In one particularly disturbing incident briefed in the report, a former governor accused of shooting into a crowd of protesters was charged with a reduced crime of “causing unintentional injuries,” with those charges later being dropped altogether.
Taken in isolation, the abuses listed in the report paint a picture of a nation struggling at times to enforce good laws while ultimately striving to develop further as a democracy. On the ground in Cambodia last year, the national trajectory was harder to discern. Protests seemed to gain momentum while government rhetoric became ever more heated; as though the state would put up with only so much back-talk from the citizenry. The aggressive, self-assured tone employed by the government’s “quick response team,” a media unit developed essentially to counter narratives critical of the government, is emblematic of this heavy handed and at times clumsy approach. Not mentioned in the report is rhetoric warning of potential violence should the ruling Cambodian People’s Party lose at the polls. Given the political reality and lack of substantive opposition, the likelihood of finding out the consequences of a CPP loss is remarkably low, but the rhetoric alone is arguably cause for concern.
The State Department’s measured critique and light analysis is understandable; it is, after all, a diplomatic body. What’s missing is an analysis of where the country is headed and what the end result of further development will be. At present, it is too early to know whether the government is merely transitioning through a rough patch or if it will clamp down when faced with greater expectations from a growing middle class and more competent political opposition. (Op-eds last year suggesting an “Arab Spring” of sorts for Cambodia were off-mark and more representative of the wishful thinking of Sam Rainsy, an opposition leader currently in self-imposed exile.) What is certain is that Cambodia will continue growing and at some point, the government will be forced to face down its lesser habits, lest these abuses grow so numerous they begin to paint a picture all on their own.