- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy this week predicted that the opposition will gain strength in planned national elections, even though the vote “will be manipulated.”

The country is to hold national elections July 27, and they are widely expected to be won by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

The elections come against a background of a poor human rights record, runaway inflation and a slow-moving international genocide tribunal for Khmer Rouge leaders. An estimated 1.7 million people died during the brutal 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime.

The State Department has described Cambodia’s human rights record as “poor,” citing reports of arbitrary arrests and prolonged detention, a weak judiciary, and government restriction of freedom of speech through defamation and disinformation suits.

According to the department’s human rights report for last year, “corruption was endemic and extended throughout all segments of society, including the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.”

Sam Rainsy, who heads a party of the same name — the Sam Rainsy Party — in an interview with The Washington Times on Wednesday described the Cambodian government as “a facade of democracy” where all powers are concentrated in Hun Sen’s hands.

He also cited “shady business deals” and said the country’s most thriving industries are deforestation, land speculation, gambling and prostitution.

The July elections come as Cambodians are facing soaring inflation and food costs — with low-grade rice reportedly selling last month in Phnom Penh markets at about 50 cents a kilogram, compared with 30 cents a few months ago.

In the past six months, basic food items have more than doubled in price, Sam Rainsy said.

About 300 supporters of the Sam Rainsy Party rallied in Phnom Penh a few weeks ago to protest inflation and demand wage increases, and Sam Rainsy said there will be another protest May 1.

Sam Rainsy also said the poor are being pushed off their land in Phnom Penh as land prices rise, and their expulsion is being compared to the Khmer Rouge’s forcible evacuation of cities in 1975 — although in this case, only the poor are being expelled.

He predicted that the election will be rigged and said large numbers of voters who do not support Hun Sen’s CPP will be stripped from election rolls.

Human Rights Watch last month said politically motivated criminal charges against at least three opposition party officials were part of a CPP campaign to weaken political rivals.

“Politically motivated criminal charges have … long been a weapon of choice of the CPP against its political foes,” the organization said.

Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, said that for those who follow Cambodian politics, “this is deja vu.”

Sam Rainsy said he needs to do his best to make sure this election won’t be “as bad” as previous elections.

Outside observers have cited progress since the last National Assembly elections in 2003, pointing to a decrease in political violence in an example.

The State Department, discussing local elections last year, acknowledged there were problems, but said most observers agreed they “were the least violent and best organized elections ever held in the country.”

The ruling CPP won 70.4 percent of the positions in that election, while the Sam Rainsy Party won 23.4 percent.

A U.N. Development Program report on those elections cited “a seeming general consensus among national and international observers that the elections were conducted in a peaceful atmosphere and were largely free and fair, particularly when compared to previous elections in Cambodia.”

How well his party will do in the elections, Sam Rainsy said, depends on how transparent and honest the election turns out to be.

He is certain, though, the opposition “will get stronger.”

“Our voice will be stronger, our influence will be stronger, and we will use them to push the Khmer Rouge tribunal to move forward,” he said.

He said the party could gain substantial power if it were to prevent the CPP from maintaining a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.

When asked whether most Cambodians believe democracy is a real possibility in the near future, he answered indirectly:

“In 1990, if you asked Russians … is the Communist Party going to disintegrate, is the Soviet Union going to disintegrate … most of them would say no.”

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