The Failed Promise to Cambodia

August 23, 2013 Topic: ElectionsPolitics Region: Cambodia

The Failed Promise to Cambodia

The international community needs to help resolve a disputed election.


The deeply flawed July 28 general election in Cambodia attracted scant international attention. This is in sharp contrast to 1993, when the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), with a $1.5 billion budget, administered the first election carried out by a UN agency following the 1948 UN-supervised Constitutional Assembly election in South Korea.

UNTAC was established by the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements. It was created as part of the “survivors' guilt” over the failure of the international community to intervene to prevent the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge. The “killing fields” period, in which up to two million Cambodians perished, stood as a stark reminder of the failure of the UN and other international organizations to prevent mass murder even after the Holocaust. UNTAC was established to restore the credibility of the international community by transforming a Cambodia emerging from civil war, genocide and foreign invasion into a model for democracy and human rights—and to allow a graceful UN exit from the country. Two decades later, as witnessed on July 28th, the world appears to little remember or even care about the pledge to restore and revitalize Cambodia.


One of the great historic ironies is that, despite these international efforts, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, Hun Sen, now sits at the center of power in Phnom Penh. A member of the group of henchmen responsible for the greatest genocide in post-World War II history continues to unilaterally call the shots on the political future of Cambodia. This is a country which, with its demographics of an extremely young population and its location at the heart of the dynamic Asian “economic miracle,” could have the potential for fulfilling all the promise of UNTAC's previous efforts.

Instead, a dark shadow again extends over Cambodia. International press reported on August 9 the movement of armored vehicles and troops into the vicinity of the capital of Phnom Penh, due to reports of planned opposition protests over the election results. The domestic crisis deepened on August 17 when the country’s National Election Committee (NEC) rejected the opposition complaints regarding voting irregularities, stating that "many of them didn't warrant further investigation." The results, reporting that Hun Sen’s ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), had taken 48.79% of the vote in the July 28 poll and had won 68 out of 123 parliamentary seats, enough for a parliamentary majority, still stand. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) claims that, without the irregularities, it would have won at least 63 seats, enough for its own parliamentary majority. In frustration, its representatives walked out of their last meeting with the NEC.

The final recourse lies with the Constitutional Council, which held a meeting on August 20th to consider nineteen separate allegations of election irregularities. The Council reportedly has seventy-two hours to complete its investigation. Only time will tell whether a last-minute agreement, reached by the ruling and opposition parties in the National Assembly, to jointly investigate allegations of voting irregularities will have any bearing on the Constitutional Council's final ruling on the matter. Win or lose, the strong opposition showing in the elections was a slap in the face to strongman Hun Sen. He is used to having his way during twenty-eight years of continual rule and does not hesitate to use strong-arm tactics when necessary. The ruling party decision to join the opposition in an investigation, therefore, could prove little more than a gambit by the Hun Sen faction to buy time to allow popular furor over the discredited election results to die down.

The opposition remains ready to take to the streets if the current impasse is not resolved in what is popularly perceived as an equitable manner. The American Embassy in Phnom Penh responded to the ongoing impasse by publicly stating that "we still say that an investigation into irregularities needs to happen. The outcome of these electoral disputes needs to be something that Cambodian people as a whole will be happy with."

Reports of voting irregularities on July 28 include the removal of eligible voters from the voting lists, the inclusion of multiple names on some voting lists, and indications that some pro-Cambodian People's Party (the ruling party) voters were allowed to cast their ballots multiple times. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki had commented on these reports on July 29, noting that "we call for a transparent and full investigation of all credible reports of irregularities. We urge all parties and their supporters to continue to act in an orderly and peaceful manner in the post-election period."

Sam Rainsy, head of the opposition CNRP, has called for a return of a United Nations role to address election issues as UNTAC once did. Rainsy returned to Cambodia just prior to the July elections after receiving a royal pardon from the king for his conviction on previous trumped-up charges. His name did not, however, appear on the voter rolls and he was not eligible for candidacy in the elections. Rainsy, in an August 5 letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, stated that “under the terms of the Paris Peace Agreements ... both the UN and the Kingdom of Cambodia have a legal obligation to ensure that our country’s ‘liberal and pluralist democracy’ be grounded in ‘free and fair elections’...“We believe that numerous irregularities in electoral processes produced an outcome that does not properly reflect the will of the people.”

It should provide the United Nations little comfort that, after all the time and treasure expended on creating “a liberal and pluralist democracy” in Cambodia that the country will likely remain, as cited above, in the hands of an infamous former Khmer Rouge cadre. Hun Sen carries a permanent physical reminder of his Khmer Rouge ties in the form of a glass eye, the result of a wound he sustained while participating in the Khmer Rouge's final assault on Phnom Penh in 1975. Hun Sen broke with the Khmer Rouge not out of any moral conviction but because, as Battalion Commander in the country's eastern region, near the Vietnamese border, he was targeted in a 1977 party purge as an underperformer. He fled with his battalion to the rival Vietnamese before he too could become a victim of the killing fields. He returned to Cambodia in 1979 with the invading Vietnamese army. On that occasion, Prince Norodom Sihanouk famously referred to him as “a lackey” of the Vietnamese.

Hun Sen might have abandoned his Khmer Rouge colleagues, but he did not put aside their murderous tactics. In 1987 Amnesty International called his regime to account for the torture of thousands of political prisoners using "electric shocks, hot irons and near-suffocation with plastic bags.” He defiantly refused to honor the 1993 UNTAC-sponsored election results, refusing to step down from the post of prime minister but instead brokering a deal that left him in place as “second prime minister” to Prince Ranariddh's “first prime minister.” By 1998 he had managed to push Ranariddh aside and resume his position as sole prime minister.

Extra-judicial killing of those who represent an inconvenience to the regime is the modus operandi in Hun Sen's Cambodia. In April 2012 environmental activist Chut Wutty was shot dead by a military-police officer while investigating illegal logging in western Cambodia in the vicinity of a Chinese hydropower construction site. His murder was still the talk of the town when I visited Phnom Penh last summer. More recently, in April of this year, Houn Bunnith, a staffer with the legal-aid NGO International Bridges to Justice (IBJ) was shot in the neck and killed by a military-police officer in Kandal province.

This is all a far cry from the Cambodia envisioned by the United Nations and the international community at the time of the supervised elections two decades ago. The question now is this: what will be the international response to the recent flawed elections and the continued, extensive human-rights abuses in a land that already suffered so much at the bloody hands of the Khmer Rouge?

Dennis P. Halpin was the Cambodia analyst in the Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 1985 to 1987.

Image: Flickr/World Economic Forum. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.