Page last updated at 13:58 GMT, Sunday, 27 July 2008 14:58 UK

Cambodia poll shows improvements

As Cambodians vote in a largely peaceful election, the BBC's Guy De Launey reflects on the sweeping changes made in the country since its first polls 15 years ago.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen after casting his vote at a polling station in Ta Khmao in Phnom Penh suburb
Hun Sen's CPP is likely to benefit from five years of economic growth
"Is the glass half-full or half-empty?" asks Tom Andrews, as he sips an iced coffee in Phnom Penh's Hotel Le Royal.

He is not referring to the cool drink in his hand, but rather about how far Cambodia has come since this colonial landmark served as a ramshackle base for the international press corps in the chaotic days before the city fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

The former United States congressman has been a regular visitor since the mid-1990s, and it is not just the standard of accommodation which has changed.

United Nations assistance made possible the first democratic election in 1993, and despite several hiccups in the intervening years the fourth national poll has been largely trouble-free.

“That's all to the good,” says Mr Andrews. “But is there an independent judiciary? No. Do broadcast media feel the need for self-censorship in their coverage? Yes. Is the state being used as a way to silence the opposition, in some cases to detain the opposition? Yes. But there is still discernible progress.”

Chea Vannath
The infrastructure, the bridges, the roads, the buildings, the schools, the hospitals are what we need - so people feel very satisfied about that
Chea Vannath, political analyst

That, in a nutshell, is the quandary facing those who hope to nudge Cambodia down the path of democracy and human rights.

It already does better than some of its South East Asian neighbours in those departments, and it has come an awfully long way since that first poll 15 years ago.

Yet there are dozens of foreign and domestic organisations which have marked Cambodia's report card “could do better.”

Looking at the country's recent history, it is tempting to label that stance impatient.

The Khmer Rouge presided over the deaths of almost two million Cambodians when they held power in the late 1970s.

Even after they were overthrown, the civil war continued, only coming to an end 10 years ago.

'Systematic corruption'

Thousands of troops fought battles in the streets of Phnom Penh in 1997, as the first coalition government between the Cambodian People's Party and the royalist Funcinpec movement fell apart.

Rioters set fire to the Thai embassy and destroyed dozens of businesses in 2003, and a year without a government followed as the parties quibbled over forming a coalition.

The picture now is quite different. Successive years of double-digit growth have done wonders for the Cambodian economy.

Sam Rainsy Party campaign rally
The Sam Rainsy Party campaigned for democratic reform

Millions of tourists are discovering the country's heritage and charm every year, providing jobs for an ever-increasing population. The Khmer Rouge is no more, and a UN-backed tribunal has charged its surviving leaders with crimes against humanity.

The CPP and Prime Minister Hun Sen have been quick to take the credit for Cambodia's new-found stability.

Election campaign billboards across the country featured the faces of the party leaders alongside pictures of new roads, bridges and schools. The message was simple - stick with us, and you will get more of the same.

Independent political analyst Chea Vannath acknowledges that achievement.

“Of course the infrastructure, the bridges, the roads, the buildings, the schools, the hospitals are what we need - so people feel very satisfied about that,” she says.

“But if you ask another question - how about democracy, how about the respect for human rights, then the answer will be different."

The opposition Sam Rainsy Party made that point loudly in the run-up to the poll. Its leader, a former finance minister who named the party after himself, has been on the receiving end of several defamation and disinformation suits from high-ranking CPP members.

He has accused the government of presiding over systematic corruption and manipulating the judiciary.

Other concerns include a widening gap between the rich and poor, and regular cases of forced evictions and land grabs.

The dispossessed often take their complaints directly to Hun Sen's private residence, illustrating that many Cambodians view the prime minister as the 'strongman' holding the country together.

Now it seems his party will have the chance to govern on its own for the first time.

As Tom Andrews puts it: “This is where the rubber meets the road. We're going to see whether there's genuine progress or not. Let's take advantage of this opportunity - but let's keep the pressure on.”

Polls close in Cambodian election
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25 Jul 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Q&A: Cambodian election
26 Jul 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodia lawmaker in court threat
18 Jun 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Cambodia
17 Apr 08 |  Country profiles
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