A government crackdown on Cambodia’s opposition, NGOs, and independent media has led to a deterioration of the country’s system of checks and balances, according to observers, hampering democracy and deterring the public from engaging in politics.
Following a strong showing by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the country’s 2013 elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen delivered a six-hour televised speech calling on officials from his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to undertake significant reforms and win back popular support.
“Firstly, you need to look at yourselves in a mirror,” he said at the time, adding that CPP officials should then “scrub your bodies to rid yourselves of all the dirty things.”
“You have to learn to accept reality based on criticism from stakeholders, the people, civil society and the opposition.”
Last week, Hun Sen convened a meeting of his top officials, during which he reiterated several key points of the same message.
In the five years since the last general election, however, the CPP has expended much of its energy discrediting critics of its governance, harassing lawmakers, rights monitors, activists, the media and even representatives of the United Nations.
Since the CNRP won nearly 44 percent of all votes in Cambodia’s June commune elections, authorities have arrested opposition chief Kem Sokha on charges of “treason” and the Supreme Court dissolved the party for its role in his alleged plot to topple the government—redistributing its parliamentary seats and councilor positions to pro-government parties, and banning 118 of its officials from politics for five years.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan recently defended the dissolution of the CNRP and said criticism from the opposition party was not welcome in Cambodia.
“We don’t need an opposition as our mirror,” he said,” adding that the CNRP’s “position is evil and they criticize us just for the sake of criticism.
“They intend to sink us and make us look bad for their own political gain. They fool the people for their votes.”
Eng Chhai Eang, a deputy president of the CNRP who has been living in self-imposed exile in recent months, told RFA’s Khmer Service that after an initial period in which debate was encouraged, Hun Sen’s government no longer welcomed engagement.
“After the 2013 election, civil society, the opposition, the public, and the media had some freedom to engage and help steer the government in the right direction,” he said, noting that debate had compelled Hun Sen to half the terms of land concessions, return management of revenue collection at the Angkor Wat temple complex from a private company to the state, and cancel contentious road tolls.
“Unfortunately, that is no longer the case since the government dissolved the opposition party, and enacted bans on [certain organizations within] the media and civil society.”
‘Weary of elections’
Political analysts and members of civil society agreed that the current crackdown on the opposition, NGOs, and the media had all but eradicated the means to ensure government accountability and presented a major challenge for the fledgling democracy ahead of a general election scheduled for July 2018.
Yoeung Sotheara, legal and monitoring officer at the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), told RFA that civic engagement had faltered in the country since the CNRP was disbanded.
“The opposition played a significant role in helping people to register to vote,” he said, noting that the CNRP gone “directly to the people in their homes and encouraged them.”
“Now that the CNRP is dissolved, opposition activists are gone or restrained from doing their work the way they had previously done it, and the people have grown weary of the elections.”
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay agreed that recent tensions had affected public interest in politics.
“The government no longer has a viable opponent and now the National Election Commission (NEC) can’t even rely on public volunteers who had previously assisted with elections,” he said.
‘Everyone is a victim’
Housing Rights Task Force executive director Sia Phearum, who is currently living in the U.S. to avoid persecution, told RFA that since the government has restricted NGOs it accuses of working to unseat the ruling party, victims of land grabs and other rights abuse have lost crucial representation in the country.
“Everyone is a victim now—civil society, the opposition party, the media,” he said, adding that “democracy is sinking” in Cambodia.
Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc, who has been living in self-imposed exile since last year, said Cambodia is becoming a one-party state and that the dissolution of the main opposition party had “seriously undermined democracy” in the country.
He urged Hun Sen to “be brave” and allow a “fair fight” by reinstating the opposition.
“He should not be afraid to engage in a democratic competition,” he said.
“He can do many good things if he so chooses, and if he does, he will secure a good legacy in Cambodia’s history.”
In recent weeks, the U.S. and EU said they plan to compile lists of individuals who spearheaded the dissolution of the opposition and other rights violations in Cambodia, with a view to level sanctions against them, and have pledged to review trade agreements with the country.
Both the U.S. and EU have withdrawn funding of the election next year, and Washington recently placed visa restrictions on “individuals responsible for undermining Cambodian democracy” in response to the arrest of Kem Sokha and the dissolution of the CNRP.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.