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Cambodia Democracy Under Threat, Activists Say

The United States, the United Nations and international human rights groups have condemned recent detentions of human rights activists and the prosecution of opposition leaders in Cambodia. The Cambodian leadership's policies have raised concerns that the country's still-new democracy is being undermined.

Three prominent Cambodian human rights leaders have been detained in recent weeks. Their alleged crime: displaying a banner at an International Human Rights Day event that accused the government of selling land to neighboring Vietnam.

The accusation referred to a recently re-negotiated border treaty with Vietnam, which occupied the country for 10 years after pushing out the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

The suggestion - that Cambodia gave away too much - struck a raw nerve in Phnom Penh. Prime Minister Hun Sen is a former Khmer Rouge soldier who fled to Vietnam, and returned when Vietnamese forces ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979. He became prime minister in 1985, in what was then a Hanoi-backed regime.

The prime minister has done more than just deny the accusation. His government ordered the activists detained - and the detentions are being seen as part of a wider crackdown on the government's critics.

Early last year, opposition leader Sam Rainsy fled Cambodia after criminal defamation charges were filed against him by the prime minister and his coalition partner, Prince Norodom Rannaridh of the royalist Funcinpec party.

Last month, Sam Rainsy was tried and convicted in absentia. From abroad, he denounced the trial as "farcical." A journalist and a trade union official are currently being detained on similar charges of criminal defamation.

Diplomats and human rights activists in the region have accused the government of using defamation charges to silence criticism.

Basil Fernando is the head of the independent Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. He says the intimidation of government critics is leading to a monopoly on power.

"It's a very serious moment of transformation of Cambodia into a state that is controlled by one single individual, one party, and the result is installing fear in people who have gone through very harsh conditions in the '70s. Now the old fear is revived," he said. "People are afraid to stay in the country, and people who are outside are afraid to return."

In the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodians echo this anxiety.

A motorbike taxi driver tells a VOA reporter it is getting difficult to speak freely, because spies are investigating, and hurting or threatening people who advocate democracy.

Some rights activists involved in the Human Rights Day event have since gone into hiding.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said the lawsuits and detentions are meant to protect the government's prestige before general elections scheduled for 2008. He says the government would be committing political suicide if it allowed such accusations to circulate unchallenged.

Cambodia has struggled to recover from the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule, between 1975 to 1979, and the Vietnamese occupation that followed until 1989. Following a U.N.-brokered peace process in the early 1990s, Cambodia has tried to institute a functioning liberal democracy.

Hun Sen and his Cambodia People's Party have dominated post-occupation politics. In 1997, Hun Sen ousted the then-prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, in a violent coup. After the most recent elections, in 2003, the CPP persuaded the prince and his party to join it in a coalition, giving it a majority in the National Assembly.

Some political analysts say there is little to prevent Hun Sen and the CPP from consolidating their power further. The party has control of the military and the corruption-rife bureaucracy, and political analysts say Cambodia's institutions remain weak and politicized.

Even before Sam Rainsy went into self-exile in France, the opposition was seen as a weak challenger. Ruki Fernando, Cambodia coordinator at the independent human rights group Forum Asia in Bangkok, says the crackdown on political opponents has strengthened Hun Sen's hand.

"I think the opposition is having a difficult time because the key leaders of the opposition can't go back to Cambodia," added Fernando. "And by making sure the leaders are not able to go back to Cambodia and mobilize supporters, the present prime minister in fact is trying to make sure that his power remains."

Fernando of the Asian Human Rights Commission says it would be a mistake if the international community failed to halt the decline of Cambodia's democracy, just as it failed to stop the Khmer Rouge even after the atrocities the Khmer Rouge were committing had become common knowledge.

"If they don't get involved, they will be morally responsible again for letting down the Cambodian people," he said.

On Wednesday, Hun Sen answered his critics, saying his government is not a dictatorship, but a democratically elected one. He said those who displayed the offending banner insulted not only the government, but the entire nation, and therefore, must be judged by the courts.

Sok Sam Oeun heads the Cambodia Defenders Project, an independent organization advocating reforms in the country's judicial system. He says Cambodians cannot afford to lose their freedom again, as they did under Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.

"We Cambodian people have experienced in Pol Pot's time that we had no freedom," he said. "So that's why we Cambodian people need freedom, and we think freedom is very important to improve the country."

The World Bank, a major aid contributor, warned this week that the political situation would discourage prospective investors and cause doubt about the country's commitment to transparency.

The U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia (Joseph Mussomeli) and the United Nations human rights envoy to Cambodia (Yash Ghai) have condemned the recent arrests, and vowed to try to persuade the government to improve the political situation.