WORLD: Sarath Fonseka of Sri Lanka and Sam Rainsy of Cambodia 

Basil Fernando

What Sarath Fonseka and Sam Rainsy have in common is that they are the most popular opposition leaders in their countries and that they have been jailed for that very reason. Political popularity is treated as a serious crime in both countries, where the ruling parties are aspiring to create one party rule.

Here are some similarities between the political styles followed by the ruling regimes in both countries:

The ruling regimes enjoy more than 2/3 majority in their parliaments. Hun Sen in fact has 90 seats out of 123 in the parliament, in which Sam Rainsy’s party has 26 seats. When the first election was held after the Pol Pot period May 1993, the opposition party won the election and the party of the present Prime Minister Hun Sen lost despite of their having the territorial control of the largest part of Cambodia. However, through subsequent elections, Hun Sen’s party has gradually gained control of power and the Funcinpec party, which was the party created by the former king, Norodom Sihaneuk. From having the majority, the Funcinpec party, was reduced to two seats in 2008. The next opponent to the ruling party was Sam Rainsy and now he is being jailed on flimsy charges. The ruling regime controls the courts and is able to get whatever verdicts it wants on political matters.

Sarath Fonseka, who was a military leader, was chosen as the common opposition candidate for the elections by several political parties and he was able to get nearly 40% of the vote (he claims that he in fact won the election and was wrongfully deprived of the victory). Later, in the parliamentary elections, he became a Member of Parliament and he was elected while he was being kept in military custody. Later he was sentenced to jail by court martial and the president, his political opponent, confirmed the verdict of the military tribunal. The arrest by the military and the use of the military tribunals was designed to deprive fair trial for the political opponent of the president.

Thus, the manipulation of the judicial process to achieve political ends has become a very essential component of the political apparatus of the suppression in both countries. Cambodia became a liberal democracy only recently. That is, by the agreement of all political parties to the Paris Agreements which created the basis for the United Nations interventions to organize elections after a long period of political devastation of the country.

The constitution which was adopted for the new Cambodia in 1993 declares Cambodia as a liberal democracy. The structure of the constitution is based on liberal democratic principles. However, at the time that the constitution was adopted, none of the basic institutions which were needed for liberal democracy existed in the country. That was because of the ruthless revolution of Pol Pot in which over 2 million people were destroyed and all the institutions in Cambodia were also brought to an end.

The most permanent institution of Cambodia, which was the monarchy, was also virtually brought to an end by the Khmer Rouge revolution, which took place between 1975 and 1979. Thereafter, a group of Cambodians supported by the Vietnamese took over the rule of the major part of Cambodia. The Vietnamese advisors laid the foundations for the infrastructure of administration in the devastated country. Naturally, their system of administration was based on socialist principles. The basic administration is controlled by the ruling political party. The ‘court system’ that was introduced was in fact an apparatus of administration to safeguard the state rather than to protect the rights of the citizens.

It was on this administrative apparatus that a liberal democratic constitution was imposed. Naturally, there was no bridge between the constitution and the actual administration. Within a short period of time, the constitution lost all practical relevance for the administration of the country. Thus, it was possible for the CPP of Hun Sen to reassert their control. Thus, Cambodia became a liberal democracy only in name.

Sri Lanka had a very much longer history of development of civil administration and judicial institutions on the basis of the common law tradition. When the country became independent from the British, Sri Lanka also adopted a liberal democratic constitution. There was a tradition of judicial institutions which had a history of 200 years. The system of civil administration was also had a more or less similar history. Education on liberal democratic principles had gone on for a long period and many persons were qualified as judges, lawyers and civil servants, in foreign universities. Later, the local educational institutes of high quality also developed in the country. The constitution after independence operated on the basis of these developments.

In 1978, however, there was an abrupt change in the constitutional structure of the country. While keeping a façade of liberal democratic jargon, an executive presidential system without any checks and balances was introduced into the country. The executive president was placed above the law and was not answerable to the courts. This was in radical contradiction to the tradition which had existed in the country until then. In the initial stages there was resistance to the new system introduced by the 1978 Constitution and the first Chief Justice, Neville Samarakoon, appointed by the same executive president who created the constitution, symbolized this resistance by his own open opposition to the executive president. However, over several decades, the system got consolidated, undermining the parliamentary system, judicial service and also all the public institutions of the country. Gradually, the executive presidential system devoured and destroyed the liberal democratic system, and its course was completed by the 18th Amendment to the constitution, which was passed just a few weeks ago.

Cambodia and Sri Lanka have reached the same point of rejecting the liberal democratic foundations of their countries. The jailing of the opposition leaders of both countries is symbolic of the commonality of the political strategies and ideologies. The idea that economic development requires a strong leader who is not opposed by other political forces is the core of the ideology that is common to Cambodia and Sri Lanka now.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-103-2010
Countries : Cambodia, Sri Lanka, World,
Campaigns : Repeal the PTA in Sri Lanka
Issues : Freedom of expression, Rule of law,