As the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division since 2002, Brad Adams oversees the organization’s work on human rights issues in twenty countries, including Cambodia. At Human Rights Watch, he has worked on a wide range of issues including freedom of expression, protection of civil society and human rights defenders, counterterrorism, refugees, gender and religious discrimination and armed conflict.
Prior to Human Rights Watch, Adams worked in Cambodia for five years as the senior lawyer for the Cambodia field office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and as the legal advisor to the Cambodian parliament’s human rights committee.
He recently spoke with RFA journalist Sok Ry Sum by telephone to discuss Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bid to dissolve the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) ahead of general elections scheduled for July 2018. The following is an edited version of that interview.
Hun Sen is staging a “cold coup” right now. In 1997, he did a military coup—a “hot coup”—where he killed so many people in the opposition, so many members of [royalist party] Funcinpec, and forced all sorts of people into exile, including members of parliament—[CNRP president] Kem Sokha and other people. Now he’s engaging in a “cold coup.” He’s not using the same amount of violence, but he’s using every state institution to overthrow the constitution … to overthrow the Paris Peace Agreement, and to overthrow the 2013 elections and the 2017 commune elections. All these people who were elected are now having their positions taken away from them. And that doesn’t just hurt those people—those members of parliament and those commune officials—it’s basically telling the voters that their vote doesn’t matter and he’s throwing their votes into the toilet. The outcome is no different than if he simply had the military stage a coup, like he did in 1997.
The international community—after the CNRP is dissolved, after he gives [the CNRP’s parliamentary] seats to Funcinpec and other parties—is going to decide that the 2018 elections are illegitimate and meaningless. They will not recognize them as real elections, and that will lead to all sorts of sanctions and other consequences for Cambodia and for the [ruling Cambodian People’s Party] CPP, and for the members of the army and police who carry out all of these human rights abuses for Hun Sen. And I fear it’s going to take the country back to the 1980s or the early 1990s when Cambodia was very isolated. Hun Sen seems to think he can rely only on China for the country’s future, but that won’t work. He should remember that one of the reasons the reform process started in [Myanmar] is that the [Myanmar] generals and government only could rely on China and the [Myanmar] people said “No, we are sick of that,” and the country fell apart economically. I don’t want that to happen to Cambodia—I think that would be very sad—but I think that’s the direction Hun Sen is taking it.
My concern is that the international reaction will come after the damage is done, not before the damage. So I think we certainly need a better response from the international community ... When you nullify the last election results by giving the seats of other parties away and you make it impossible for there to be free and fair elections next year, there will be consequences. It may just take a while for them to happen.
There will be sanctions. Military relationships will be finished. He’s already temporarily stopped relations with the U.S., but other countries will not want to have any cooperation with the Cambodian military. There will be asset freezes of senior officials in the government. There will be travel bans on officials in the government, I think. There will be asset forfeitures of overseas property, I think you can predict that. There will possibly criminal cases filed against human rights abusers in the Cambodian government. There will be reduced economic assistance to the country, which I hope will not be targeted at the poor and the vulnerable, but sometimes governments just cut everything off. They might say, “Look, we can’t justify providing assistance to Cambodia when this kind of thing happens,” which I think would be bad for the average Cambodian person, but that’s just how governments work.
The CNRP has been an entirely non-violent, peaceful movement, and he keeps acting like it’s some kind of military threat. They don’t have a military. They’ve never said they had a military. They don’t engage in violence. He engages in violence. They engage in peaceful opposition. Hun Sen has now basically made it a crime to compete in the next election.
In the short term, Hun Sen is getting what he wants. He’s dissolving the opposition party, many members of the opposition are leaving, some members of the opposition are disagreeing with each other. But if a person has guns, an army, the police, and the gendarmerie, and the other person only has words, it’s pretty easy to do that. The problem is that it just means that Hun Sen becomes completely illegitimate. He can’t be taken seriously as a legitimate prime minister of a legitimate government. So it harms himself too … Now Hun Sen is putting everything at risk. And I don’t think this is going to work in the long run. He can scare people right now, but I don’t think the Cambodian people are going to just sit still and accept this.