15 Years Working to Promote Freedom in Cambodia: 1996-2011

15 June 2011, it is a special day which marks 15 years of my involvement with the German Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF), Cambodia project. I came back from Germany to Cambodia in early April 1996 and got the job with the foundation in June.

Brief background on how I entered the foundation? I got to know Dr. Peter Traub, then FNF Project Director for Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar based in Bangkok, when he made a presentation on the “Current Relationship Between Cambodia and Thailand” to the students at Passavia University, in 1995.

Informal meeting with the German Ambassador (with glas) at Koma's farm in 1996

I was a PhD candidate there and listened to his presentation and we had a small talk in that evening. After my returning home, Dr. Koma, my lifelong friend, informed the German Ambassador about me and my background and the intention to look for a job. One day, Dr. Peter Traub came to Cambodia and had a courtesy call with the Ambassador. Dr. Traub was looking for someone to work for the foundation based in Cambodia. He was informed by the Ambassador about my person. Few days later, Dr. Traub invited me to call him and right after offered me an option to come for an interview to Bangkok. We then signed the working contract. And, I am currently still joyfully working for the foundation.

After 15 years working to promote liberal democracy, human rights, freedom and responsibility in Cambodia, I would like to share my humble observations regarding progress and regress of the political situation in my country as follows.

With my first (right) and second (left) boss in Siem Reap, December 1996

Some progress worth mentioning:

  • Peace and stability all over the country, especially since 1998, after the fall of the KR movement. Cambodia was at war and experienced genocide, political instability since 1970
  • Cambodia is open to ASEAN and the world community after long time isolation and economic embargo by the West
  • The 1993 constitution is a very liberal one
  • National Elections have been regularly held in 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2008. At the sub-national level: Direct Commune elections have been held two times in 2002 and in 2007; indirect Senate election was done in 2007 and the next one will be in January 2012; and indirect Elections for councilors at municipality, cities, province/district/khan was organized successfully in 2009
  • Representatives from five political parties have their representatives in Parliament (2008-2013): ruling parties: CPP (90 seats) and FCP (2 seats); 2 main opposition parties [SRP (26 seats) and HRP (3 seats)] and Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP, 2 seats)
  • Representatives from all political parties are elected to the commune, cities, provincial and district councils
  • Less political killing from election to election. In 1993 there were more than hundred people assassinated. The victims were mainly supporters of the opposition parties. In 2008, around 10 got killed. It has been improved a lot, though one dead is still too much
  • Top Khmer Rouge leaders have been brought to trial
  • New infrastructure such as road and bridges have been rehabilitated or newly built, which allow free movement of Cambodians inside the country and abroad
  • Open civil society, more than 3000 NGOs registered, with roughly around one third is active
  • More open political culture and political debates/dialogue
  • Anti-corruption law was in 2010 promulgated and the Anti-Corruption Unit was established
  • Free market economy, which allows private property to prosper
  • Double digit economic growth, especially before the world economic crisis
  • Foreign tourists are coming, 2.5 millions expected this year
  • The rapid growth of mobile phone users, internet accessibility encourage (young) people to make use of social network media (facebook, blog, twitter, website etc.) to spread ideas and message and retrieve useful information from all over the world
  • Education system has been improved, though the quality is still limited. There are more than 30 state own high education faculties/universities and more than 50 private ones with around 300,000 students.

However,  as you could read a short article in The Cambodia Daily above, there are still many challenges (Regress) to be tackled:

  • Main principles of liberal democracy written in the 1993 constitution are still very much on paper. The reality is much different
  • Elections are “far from free and fair”. The ruling party uses all means to keep the oppositions, critical NGOs and political dissidents in check
  • The absence of true distinction between the legislative, executive and judicative branches. The super power of the executive branch, especially of the Prime Minister and people around him, guaranteed some sort of political stability, but hampered also better development opportunity for the country
  • Political killing becomes rare, but powerful politicians and rich people are using corrupt and dominant court system for own benefits or to silence political opponents
  • The media is very much in favor for the ruling party
  • Limited freedom of speech and freedom of assembly guaranteed in the constitution
  • Corruption is still widespread. Some high ranking officials, who were equally poor in the eighties, but now they are becoming millionaires. The gap between rich and poor is widening
  • Land grabbing is everywhere due to high land price, economic land concessions to private companies, lack of land titles and poor law enforcement ability of the state
  • Forced eviction of poor people due to very high land price in prime area, especially in Phnom Penh, is common
  • Still 26% of 14 million populations remain poor, living under the national poverty line of ½ dollar per day
  • Cambodia is still an aid dependent country
  • Economic development causes a lot of environmental destruction

To me, I am very happy to live and work in Cambodia. I can share my knowledge and experiences with partners of the foundation, the participants of our programs, with colleagues and friends,  especially young people. The current political situation is favorable for economic development and rebuilding of our country. I am convinced that our works some how contribute to the improvement of many fields in this society. No doubts, there are still many real challenges ahead, but the road is worth travelling.  

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