Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Cambodia: Time for a transformation?

By Jul 31, 2013
But would things change if the opposition were able to form a government? asks Asia Sentinel’s Caroline Hughes

A strong showing for Cambodia’s opposition in Sunday’s election suggests a rekindling of democratic hopes in the country. Commentators have suggested that increasing numbers of young voters – a networked and Facebooked post-war generation – have swung the vote away from the authoritarian Cambodian People’s Party for the first time in a decade.

However, the CPP has never enjoyed the overwhelming majorities that governments in neighboring Malaysia or Singapore are used to. It is the CPP’s landslide win in the 2008 election – at the height of a boom, against a divided opposition, and with a border dispute with Thailand threatening to break into warfare – that was unusual. Aside from that election, the voters have always been fairly evenly split between pro- and anti-CPP blocs.
Sam Rainsy speaks at a rally at CNRP rally at party headquarters in Phnom Penh Wednedsay. Pic: AP.

The reason for this is that the postwar settlement in Cambodia, ushered in by a United Nations peacekeeping mission, has divided Cambodia into a nation of haves and have-nots. The country’s economic reconstruction has been achieved through wholesale privatization of land, water, forests and fisheries, minerals, beaches and other resources. Since the free-market reforms that preceded the UN peacekeeping mission, the majority of the population, which engages in labor intensive and low-tech forms of rice farming for survival, has seen their access to resources such as water, timber, fish and fertilizer sharply restricted.

At the same time, a series of land laws has not resulted in security of land tenure for many Cambodians. Land disputes remain a major source of social discontent, especially in border areas where military units sustain claims to large areas of land previously used for bases or maneuvers, and in urban areas where rapidly increasing property values have led to violent evictions of urban poor communities.

At the same time, inadequate health services prompt the poor to sell land to pay for medical care, and a corrupt judiciary invariably finds for the richer party in land disputes. Because of these factors, inequality in landholdings, negligible in the late 1980s when Cambodia emerged from a socialist regime, has become one of the most skewed in Asia.

As in the former Soviet Union, free market reforms in Cambodia have produced a class of wealthy and politically influential Cambodian tycoons. Many of the most powerful initially made their fortunes from state-awarded monopolies over import and export of goods such as petrol, pharmaceuticals and luxury liquor brands. They currently benefit from a development strategy that has seen millions of hectares of land awarded to developers for establishing plantations, displacing local people and ignoring customary rights to resources.
Continue reading at Asia Sentinel

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