Cambodia’s PM tightens grip on political power

As his new government finally gets to work, Cambodia’s prime minister is tightening his grip on power, shrewdly snubbing or quashing his top rivals, analysts and activists say.

Hun Sen, the region’s longest serving leader, formed a coalition government last month with his former royalist coalition partner after a year-long impasse following July 2003 elections which his party failed to win outright.

While the international community and most Cambodians were relieved at the resumption of parliament, critics are alarmed at the menace they say Hun Sen poses to the kingdom’s young democracy.

"He is in an unchallengeable position. Democracy is threatened by events over the last few months," political analyst Lao Mong Hay told AFP.

"He can ignore all criticism from outside and inside the country. He has the command of the security forces and he has the command of the public administration."

In a matter of weeks, Hun Sen has trampled over the constitution, secured domination in his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), snubbed revered King Norodom Sihanouk and is again flexing his muscles against the vocal opposition party.

Activist hackles were first raised by a disputed law he insisted be passed last month by parliament to ensure his re-election as prime minister.

The king refused to sign the bill from self-exile in North Korea, where he retreated in frustration over the ongoing political saga in which he was sidelined.

The 81-year-old instead ordered acting head of state, Chea Sim, to decide on signing it, sparking the greatest tension of the year-long stand-off.

According to diplomatic sources, Chea Sim, who heads a rival CPP faction and was once considered the country’s most powerful man, tried to use the bill as a bargaining chip to win more ministries for his faction in the new government.

Hun Sen refused to budge. His forces descended around Chea Sim’s home on July 13 and he was escorted to Thailand by the national police chief, leaving his royalist deputy to ink the contentious legislation.

The highly secretive CPP, a former communist party installed by the Vietnamese after they chased the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, swiftly closed ranks and insisted Chea Sim had left for a medical check-up.

Meanwhile a dispirited King Sihanouk threatened to abdicate.

Although the king has made such warnings before, diplomats say this time he is dismayed by political developments and wishes to withdraw.

King Sihanouk said he will stay abroad in Beijing, where he travelled after North Korea, until he receives a guarantee from parliament that he will not be breaching the constitution by abdicating.

"People’s stomachs are a more urgent problem," than the king’s abdication, Hun Sen snapped in response, arguing that under the constitution, the king is king for life.

The opposition has charged that Hun Sen would prefer King Sihanouk to stay stranded in exile. Others fear his abdication will spark a constitutional crisis, as no procedures are in place to choose his successor.

"Only two things stand in the way between Hun Sen and his vision: the king and god," one Phnom Penh-based diplomat said.

On another front, Hun Sen is squeezing the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.

Shortly after the government was formed, the premier claimed the opposition was building a rebel force aiming to topple the new government.

No arrests have been made, but several party members were tricked into making false confessions about the alleged front in what the diplomat described as a naive move that flopped — one of Hun Sen’s few misplaced steps.

Hun Sen last week blocked members of the opposition from sitting on national assembly commissions charged with debating draft laws.

The criticism of laws by the opposition, which has had places on the commissions since UN-sponsored elections in 1993, is now effectively silenced.

"The power of the opposition party is getting smaller and smaller," Hang Puthea, the director of election monitoring group Comfrel, told AFP.

Momentum to stamp out foreign paedophiles builds in Cambodia

From billboards warning of harsh penalties to eagle-eyed hotel workers being called on to report suspicious people, Cambodia is stepping up its fight against foreign paedophiles preying on its children.

After decades of war that ended just six years ago, the freewheeling, poverty-stricken kingdom has earned a dubious reputation as a haven for paedophiles, with a lax judicial system and entrenched culture of impunity.

But experts say the tide is turning with 21 foreign paedophiles jailed or deported from Cambodia since the start of 2003, according to interior ministry figures.

"The government has acknowledged that it has a problem and it has started to take action, and it has been supported by international action," said UNICEF country representative in Cambodia Rodney Hatfield.

"With aspirations of being a tourism centre, this is something they need to eliminate," he added.

Cambodian hotel and guesthouse owners in March were asked to report suspected paedophiles. Last month, non-government organisation World Vision launched a series of prominent billboards in the capital with the US Department of Immigration warning: "Abuse a child in this country, go to jail in yours."

The billboards, with a hotline number to report suspects, are also planned for Siem Reap, the gateway to the famed Angkor Wat temple complex, and the beachside resort of Sihanoukville.

Under 2003 US legislation, any of its citizens having sex with a child abroad faces 30 years in a US prison. Three US nationals have already been deported from Cambodia since September last year.

"We have to tell the world that Cambodia is not a sex tourist destination. They can come here for cultural tourism but not sex tourism," interior ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told AFP.

Japan and Australia are also among an increasing number of countries enacting similar legislation ensuring crimes against children are punishable in the offender’s home country.

Hang Vibol, director of Action Pour les Enfants (Action for Children), a group that monitors suspected paedophiles and feeds information to police, applauds shifting prosecution out of Cambodia.

"In Cambodia, the situation is that if people give money to police or to the courts, they get off," he said. "In Cambodia if you have money you can do anything."

Other problems include paedophiles becoming more discreet, complicit parents and powerful local interests ensuring a steady supply of victims.

"Police seem to be paying more attention to this kind of problem… but the numbers of paedophiles are still the same. Those committing this crime are changing their strategy," Hang Vibol said.

They once brazenly picked up children from main tourist areas in the capital, but now ask motorcycle taxi drivers to take them outside the city to prowl for available children, or befriend a child and build relationships with their parents.

"Some parents are cooperating with paedophiles to sell their own children. The parents are not helping to give evidence," he added.

Hatfield said the biggest single problem remained that people were making money out of the business.

"It’s all very well stamping down on the demand, but it’s an unpleasant fact that we don’t seem to be able to do much about the supply."

While arrests are increasing, a handful of westerners detained have been released, calling into question how evidence is handled and whether innocent people are being unfairly treated, or the guilty getting off.

"It’s important not to presume guilt," said World Vision’s Laurence Gray, who has worked in child protection here since 1995.

"There is a process that needs to be followed and NGOs can help give a voice to this. If people are freed and justice has not been done, then this means there needs to be better mechanisms, a better system."