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Last Updated: 11/12/2008Challenges to Peace in Cambodia
This article addresses the main challenges to the emergence of the positive or durable peace in Cambodia. The challenges embrace poor governance accompanied by ineffective enforcement of the Constitutional Laws, deep-rooted corruption alongside economic instability and poverty, and social injustice and inequity and widespread human rights violations. The recommendations corresponding to the aforementioned hindrances also deserve priority attention at the end of this article.
Because the concept of peace is not a new phenomenon, there have been several definitions and classifications of peace from different perspectives across the world. According to Salomon and Nevo (2002), “[p]eace is often referred to as the absence of violence. It is often associated with security. Peace as a positive force implies the process of blessing others, respecting them, cooperating with them, and reducing violence of all kinds” (p. 17). Webel (2007) also pointed out that: “[p]eace is a linchpin of social harmony, economic equity and political justice, but peace is also constantly ruptured by wars and other forms of violent conflict” (pp. 5 - 6). He further stated clearly that:
“[p]eace ranges from what I shall call ‘Strong, or Durable, Peace’ (roughly equivalent to Johan Galtung’s term ‘Positive Peace’ – a condition in which there is relatively robust justice, equity, and liberty, and relatively little violence and misery at the social level) to weak or fragile peace… [o]n the other end of the spectrum is what I will call ‘Weak, or Fragile, Peace’ (‘Negative Peace’ in Galtung’s formulation), where there may be an overt absence of war and other widespread violence in a particular culture, society or nation-state, but in which there is also pervasive injustice, inequality and personal discord and dissatisfaction” (p. 11).
Equipping the Cambodian people with a deeper understanding and broader knowledge of peace may have also played a vital role in arousing our intense curiosity about how positive peace or durable peace can be attained at a national level in this country. It is noteworthy that since the end of the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime (1975-1979), in which nearly two million Cambodian innocent people and intellectuals were brutally killed, Cambodia, a young democratic country in Southeast Asia, has experienced a number of such obstacles and difficulties as political instability or deadlock, internal conflicts and protracted civil wars. These obstacles and difficulties have brought about two negative effects: (1) the way of the development has not been paved; and (2) the positive peace has not been promoted or achieved in the country. As a result, a simple, but difficult, question can be raised: what are the possible underlying hindrances to the development of the positive peace in Cambodia?
II. Key Challenges to the Positive Peace in Cambodia
It is evident that there have been three significant challenges or hindrances to the emergence of the positive peace in Cambodia that have deserved priority attention. The first central challenge is lack of good governance. “The concept of good governance is broadly characterized by transparency, responsibility, public participation, adherence to the rule of law and cooperation between government and civil society” (Council for the Development of Cambodia, n.d.). Holsti (1991) also offered a short description of “governance (some system of responsibility for regulating behaviour in terms of the conditions of an agreement)” which is one the most important prerequisites for the positive peace (As cited in Ramsbotham, et. al., 2005, p. 37). As can be seen from the aforesaid core explanations of the governance, it simply means that in order for Cambodia to accomplish the positive peace, the government must promote strong governance, accompanied by independence, transparency and efficiency, at the national, provincial, and district levels. Nonetheless, the prioritized goal to promote the presence and emergence of the positive peace in the country has not been achieved yet since the government has failed to perform well and effectively and encountered many shortcomings and challenges including rapid population growth, high poverty and unemployment rate, widespread domestic violence against women, poor educational standards, and lack of medical facilities.
Asian Development Bank (2008) also shared its focal emphasis on some aspects of the weak governance in Cambodia that: “[p]ublic servants are generally poorly paid and exhibit low productivity. Public administration is inefficient. Tax evasion is prevalent and domestic revenue collection is poor.” Furthermore, it is true to claim that the weak governance in the country has resulted in ineffective enforcement of Constitutional Laws. When the Laws are not strictly implemented, Cambodian high-ranking government officials enjoy abusing power and utilizing their powerful influence without being punished or imprisoned for their wrongdoings. A good example of the weak governance can be seen in a case of the enactment of Cambodia’s Land Law in 2001. The Law clearly stated that: “… any person enjoying peaceful, uncontested possession of a given property for more than five years acquires an in rem ownership interest, and can request a definite title of ownership over it” (Human Rights Solidarity, 2007). This Law, nevertheless, has not been effectively enforced in the Cambodian real-world situations due to the weak governance and mismanagement of all government institutions and agencies.
The second, and probably the most pervasive, hindrance to the positive peace in Cambodia is deep-rooted corruption that has led to economic insecurity and poverty. Despite the fact that there has been a petition, with genuine signatures of about one million Cambodian people along with a strong push from local and international non-governmental organizations in the country, requesting the government to adopt the enactment of Anti-Corruption Law, this Law has not been passed for several years; more importantly, a self-governing anti-corruption body and an independent and efficient judicial system have not been established owing to deep-seated corruption as well as lack of real effort and strong commitment at all levels in the country. Calavan, Briquets, and O’ Brien (2004) illustrated the possibility and the level of corruption involvement among Cambodian ministries that:
“[t]here is a hierarchy of ministries from the viewpoint of corruption opportunities. Finance, which signs off on transfer of funds to other ministries, and controls customs and the tax office, and Agriculture, which controls forest and agricultural concessions, are at the top of the list. Health and Education are presumably mid-level, with modest opportunities to manipulate construction contracts and procurements of medications and textbooks... Even the Ministry of Planning can manipulate contracts with firms that undertake research projects or surveys.”
Lao (2008), a senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, also acknowledged that: “[c]orruption in Cambodia was already rife, affecting every walk of life… It was and still is prevalent in every public institution everywhere and at every level: in schools, hospitals, fire services, the police, the army, the civil service, the judiciary, the government and the Parliament”. For instance, throughout the public school system, students are expected to bribe their teachers to get good grades or to pass examinations, while in public health service, supplemental fees are paid behind closed doors by patients to doctors or other health care staff for their access to various medical treatments. In 2007, it was estimated that among all the public institutions and agencies in Cambodia the police and the judicial system were the most infamous for their involvement in serious corruption, and the country “ranked 162 out 179 countries in the TI [Transparency International] Corruption Perceptions Index” (Lao, 2008). In addition, Australian Government (2008) also reported that:
“[t]he United Nations Development Program's 2005 Human Development Index ranks Cambodia 131 out of 177 countries in terms of quality of life and while gradual progress has been made in reducing poverty, current projections show that Cambodia will not meet the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people living below USD1 a day by 2015.”
This accurate and reliable information reveals that Cambodia, which has been steeped in a long recorded history of widespread corruption, has not been able to promote a high level of economic performance and security, so the majority of its people remain poor living below the poverty line, which is equal to one U.S. dollar a day. This simply means that their basic needs including clean water, electricity, medical facilities, just to mention a few, are not met or are not sufficiently supplied, thus impoverishing their daily living conditions. In regard to the burning issue of corruption in Cambodia, BBC (British Broadcasting Cooperation) News (2006) also added that 50 percent of the Cambodia’s national budget was from international donors, namely World Bank and Asian Development Bank. Despite this fact, Cambodia has failed to use international funds or foreign aids well and effectively. This failure can be addressed and examined in: (1) the mismanagement of funds in a project to demobilize 30, 000 soldiers revealed by the World Bank in 2003; and (2) the missing funds of US$1.2 million discovered by the World Food Program in 2004 (Lao, 2008). We would not be surprised that the missing funds go to corrupt government officials, but the burdens to pay back the funds are shouldered on Cambodian people who are obliged to pay taxes and who are exploited in every turn. As a consequence, the people are still poor or even become poorer, while the officials lead a wealthier life.
The third and last crucial challenge is social inequality and injustice. Edwards (2005) said that: “[a]t the level of the nation-state, equity/equality addresses the fair distribution of such resources as food, affordable housing, health care, education, job training and professional opportunities” (p. 23). From Edwards’s standpoint, the social equity or equality focuses mainly on the just and equal allocation of existing resources among citizens in the society. However, in the Cambodian society, the real concept of the social equity or equality goes beyond his point of view. Asian Development Bank (2008) showed that: “[t]he justice system is susceptible to political influence and does not in practice afford citizens equal access to the law”. Apparently, the court or legal system in Cambodia is used as a political tool, so the independence and efficiency of the judiciary are not promoted, and more importantly, the way for the development of the social equality and justice is not paved in the society due to lack of just and equal treatment among all citizens. In addition to the social inequality and injustice, human rights abuses that have ranked among the most serious issues have also hindered the development of the positive peace in Cambodia. Two major examples of the most recent human rights violations in the country deserve to be mentioned here. The first example is in relation to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Human Rights Watch (2006) claimed that: “[g]overnment crackdowns on freedom of speech and public assembly --together with arrests and harassment of communities seeking to maintain their access to land and natural resources -- has created a repressive atmosphere, prohibiting many citizens from airing their grievances in public.” By law, the media in Cambodia can broadcast or spread any accurate information or news in a free and fair manner without being under pressure of any individuals or groups; in practice, nonetheless, most of the media outlets, though not all, particularly television and radio stations, are tightly controlled and influenced by the ruling government and authorities, and are used mostly to disseminate their political propagandas and to block any criticism or report on their power abuse and their threatening and violent behaviors towards citizens, especially social activists, thus concealing the reality in the country. The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the U.S. Department of State (2008) also observed the abuse of human rights in connection with freedom of assembly in Cambodia that:
“[t]he constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but at times the government did not respect this right in practice. The government required that a permit be obtained in advance of a march or demonstration. The government routinely did not issue permits to groups critical of the ruling party or of nations with which the government had friendly relations. Authorities cited the need for stability and public security as reasons for denying permits. Police forcibly dispersed groups that assembled without a permit, often resulting in minor injuries to some demonstrators.”
The second example of the human right violations is related to forced evictions in the country. Thousands of poor urban families, who have lived in their homes or community for several years, have been violently forced to leave their settlements without any lawful action or due process of law by the armed military police. With no choice and power, they are provided with either insufficient compensation for their removal or a poor living condition at the undeveloped and isolated relocation sites with no clean water supply, electricity, medical conveniences, and other basic needs. “ADHOC [Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association] reported receiving 382 land-related cases affecting 19,329 families during the year. During the same period, LICADHO [Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights] received 98 land-related cases in Phnom Penh and 13 other provinces affecting a total of 6,048 persons” (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the U.S. Department of State, 2008).
III. Recommendations for the Promotion of the Positive Peace in Cambodia
In conclusion, it is so clear that there are three significant challenges to the development of the positive peace in Cambodia: (1) weak governance followed by ineffective enforcement of Cambodia’s Constitutional Laws; (2) deep-rooted corruption alongside economic insecurity and poverty; and (3) social inequality and injustice and human rights violations. In order for the positive peace to be promoted in the country, the following recommendations corresponding to the abovementioned major challenges must be taken into serious consideration.
Firstly, it is a fundamental step to enact an anti-corruption law and establish an independent anti-corruption commission and efficient judicial system with their full authority to implement the law and to fight against the widespread corruption at all levels in the country. High qualification and professional accountability of commission and judiciary members as well as good management and effectiveness of working procedures should be taken into account. With no doubt, the enactment of the law and the creation of the commission and the judiciary will contribute to curbing the deep-rooted corruption, to securing economic growth and alleviating poverty, and to upgrading the social equity and justice and the respects for the civil rights. In addition, the strict enforcement of the Cambodia’s Constitutional Laws, which has led to the good governance, must be promoted at all levels and equally applied to every citizen in the society so that any individuals or groups, regardless of their social statuses or positions, who are involved in the power abuse or any other wrongdoings, will be punished or imprisoned.
Secondly, the international donors, especially World Bank and Asian Development Bank, need to make certain that foreign funds or aids must be properly, transparently, and effectively used to provide real benefits for the poor and the vulnerable in the country. Moreover, the donors should also provide financial and technical support to found the independent and non-governmental research institutions to offer effective ongoing assessment and monitoring for better government reforms, accountability, and transparency in the country.
Lastly, but importantly, freedom of speech and of public assembly must be ensured in such a young democratic country like Cambodia, so that people can demonstrate their needs and concerns publicly and freely. Furthermore, the media, particularly televisions and radios, must be independent and free from any political pressure or influence to expose such burning issues as the apparent power abuse, corruption, impunity, and forced evictions in the country. As a result, an intense awareness among Cambodian people as well as international community of the issues will be raised, and the viable solutions to the issues will be addressed and promoted accordingly.
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Virak Thun is currently an MA student at the University for Peace, Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, in the major of International Peace Studies (Dual Campus).