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24 Jan 06
It was supposed to have been the failed state that the United Nations would save from chaos and put on the path to a democratic future. Instead, a different fate seems to be beckoning for Cambodia, southeast Asia’s most tragic nation.
A political crackdown by an increasingly authoritarian government is starting to make political analysts think that Cambodia’s future will not be economic development and a booming tourist trade centred on the extra ordinary ruins of Angkor Wat, but a fate like that suffered by the region’s decrepit pariah nation, military-ruled Burma.
The outlook wouldn’t be so bleak if it was just Cambodia where the shoots of democracy are withering. But a report last week detailed worsening state violence and the loss of judicial independence across Asia, with the grip of would-be dictators strengthening. And this at a time when the eyes of the world are focused on attempts to spread democratic values in the Middle East and the former Soviet states.
“Fear is stalking Asia,” said Basil Fernando, head of the Asian Human Rights Commission, introducing an annual report this week. The State Of Human Rights In 10 Asian Nations 2005 showed a disturbing rise in politically motivated torture, kidnapping and killings.
Political assassinations in the Philippines are at their highest levels since the end of the Marcos regime in 1986. Atrocities have become commonplace in Nepal, slipping deeper into a brutal civil war, whether carried out by a corrupt government or by increasingly violent Maoist insurgents.
Thailand’s powerful leader Thaksin Shinawatra shows signs of wanting to turn into an old-fashioned strongman. The prime minister, a former policeman turned media tycoon, tried to brutally crush a Muslim insurgency in the southern provinces, with ham-fisted and counter-productive results.
Indonesia’s new president shows real promise, but the nation continues to be wracked by corruption and a brutal military occupation of Papua province continues. Vietnam and Laos cling to communist political systems despite economic liberalisation.
But most worrying of all is Cambodia. The outside world poured billions of dollars of aid into the tiny nation to try to help it recover from years of civil war, the megalomaniac Pol Pot’s holocaust of 1.7 million of his countrymen, and Vietnamese military occupation.
It is now ruled by Hun Sen, a politician who once tried to take power in a coup backed with tanks. These days he uses crippling defamation actions against his political opponents, a trick learned from Singapore and Thailand’s elected rulers.
The latest victim of such tactics is Sam Rainsy, leader of the only real opposition party, sentenced in December to 18 months in prison for criminal defamation. The sentence was passed in absentia; Rainsy had already fled the country.
The once-powerful monarchy has been sidelined, labour unions silenced, and the human rights groups that were nurtured under the UN’s mission in the 1990s targeted for destruction.
Four of their most prominent members were arrested last week, then released as a “present” by the prime minister for a visiting US dignitary.
Hun Sen’s government does respond to outside pressure – then simply returns to its heavy-handed ways when the attention of the world wanders.
Unlike many of its neighbours – including communist Vietnam, which has a booming economy – the country is still mired in poverty. Corruption is endemic and public anger over land grabs by officials spills into violence.
But it is the political shenanigans of Hun Sen which are Cambodia’s greatest problem. Things are getting so bad that the country’s United Nations envoy for human rights, Yash Ghai, has said that only strong action from Cambodia’s neighbouring trading partners could save democracy. “It has all the hallmarks of the beginnings of a totalitarian regime,” he said.
Sadly, those neighbours have shown little interest in putting principle before profits when it comes to the generals who rule Burma. Singapore and Thailand have been happy to trade with soldiers who have blood on their hands, and suspicions of drugs trading hanging over them.
But if some of Asia’s leaders make up a sorry bunch, its people are hungry for a democratic future.
Despite his gloomy appraisal, Fernando sounded a note of optimism. “The cry for democracy has never been so sharp,” he said. “If movements are supported and strengthened, it is possible to reverse the political trend.”