An increasing number of activists from Cambodia’s opposition party are fleeing to Thailand to pursue their goals amid growing pressure from local authorities, they said Friday, despite what appears to be a relative easing of restrictions on the country’s political space.
Cambodian authorities arrested Kem Sokha, the former president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in September 2017 and charged him with treason for attempting to overthrow the government, leading the Supreme Court to dissolve his party two months later for its role in the alleged plot.
The moves were part of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Amid international pressure, authorities have partially lifted Kem Sokha’s severe bail requirements while he awaits a trial set for January and released some CNRP activists accused of treason from detention, even as reports suggest that the government continues to target other party supporters, some of whom have been physically assaulted by unknown assailants believed to be associated with the ruling party.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Friday, a CNRP activist from Tboung Khnum province named Try Seang Y said that she and two fellow activists fled to Thailand earlier this month because they are under constant surveillance by authorities and are being prevented from carrying out their work to restore democracy to Cambodia.
Conditions in her home country are growing increasingly difficult for opposition activists, she said, because “Hun Sen has continued to threaten to arrest and detain people who have done nothing to break the law,” while fewer economic opportunities have made it impossible for people like her to earn a living.
But Try Seang Y said that the CNRP activist community in Thailand is strong, and that she believes it will eventually succeed in forcing Hun Sen to return power to the CNRP elected officials who were stripped of their positions after the party was dissolved in 2017.
“If we don’t fight, we will die, so we must fight for change,” she said.
Another CNRP activist from Svay Rieng named Mao Vibol, who also recently fled to Thailand, said more opposition supporters are leaving Cambodia because they want to unite with the party’s leaders in exile to continue their political work.
“We are fleeing because we don’t have any confidence in the judicial system,” he said.
“They are arresting CNRP activists. The activists are afraid, so they cannot stay in the country. This is part of the government’s strategy to force opposition party activists to defect to the ruling party.”
Ruling party spokesman and CPP lawmaker Sok Ey San told RFA that the government does not persecute its citizens and suggested that the activists simply want to relocate to wealthier nations.
“Why are you afraid if you haven’t committed any crimes,” he asked, adding that “about 16 million people are living [in Cambodia] happily.”
“They are claiming political persecution so that they can resettle in the U.S. and France,” he said.
But Seoung Sen Karona, a spokesman for local human rights group Adhoc, said Cambodia continues to endure a political crisis because activists with the opposition party cannot freely express their opinions, and that people have the right to pursue political freedom elsewhere.
“CNRP activists are fleeing so that they can express their political opinions and criticize the government,” he said.
A total of 16 CNRP activists are currently in detention in Cambodia, including one who was ordered released by the country’s Appeals Court after completing his sentence, but who remains in custody.
Among the pressures Cambodia’s government faces in response to its rollbacks on democracy and other human rights is the potential withdrawal of its tariff-free access to the European Union under the Everything But Arms (ABA) trade scheme, which CNRP acting president Sam Rainsy told RFA in an interview on Friday he believes will force Hun Sen to make “positive changes” in 2020.
“We are hoping for positive changes in early 2020 because the Feb. 12 EBA decision is rapidly approaching,” said Sam Rainsy, who has lived in Paris in self-imposed exile since 2015 to avoid a string of what he says are politically motivated charges and convictions.
“I think Hun Sen’s government understands the importance of maintaining the EBA. If it doesn’t comply with the EU’s recommendations, he will be responsible for serious hardships that will affect the workers and the general public.”
On Nov. 12, the EU warned in a preliminary report that Cambodia has not taken enough measures to prevent a withdrawal of its EBA status, noting the country’s further deterioration of civil, political, labor, social, and cultural rights since the launch of a review process in February.
Earlier this month, in a statement accompanying its official response to the report, which was not made public, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that, ahead of an EU decision on the matter in February 2020, it expects that the bloc will take into consideration “the government’s good faith efforts to implement all the relevant international conventions under the EBA regulations.”
The ministry’s statement was in stark contrast to recent comments from Hun Sen, who despite warnings from civil society that loss of EBA status would devastate Cambodia’s working class, has said he has no interest in meeting the EU’s demands.
Sam Rainsy said Friday that the CNRP plans to release its 2020 platform following the EU’s February decision on the EBA and that in the meantime, the party “continues to encourage Hun Sen to behave to avoid EBA suspension.”
The acting CNRP chief said that he is also working with the international community on other measures to pressure Hun Sen to open Cambodia’s political space, but suggested that a loss of EBA status could lead to mass protests against the government.
Sam Rainsy’s comments came as the International Monetary Fund said in a report Friday that Cambodia could suffer “a 3 percentage point decline in GDP growth” in 2020 if the EU suspends its EBA status.
Without a suspension, the economy is expected to grow 6.8 percent next year, compared with 7 percent in 2019, driven by garment exports, the IMF said.
Responding to the IMF report, Sok Ey San said that Cambodia’s government had forecast GDP growth of 6.5 percent in 2020 in the absence of the EBA and “has already prepared for it.
Cambodia is the second-largest beneficiary of EBA trade preferences, accounting for more than 18 percent of all imports to the EU market under the EBA scheme in 2018.
EU imports from Cambodia totaled 5.3 billion euros (U.S. $5.8 billion) that year, nearly all of which entered the EU duty-free, taking advantage of EBA preferences.
Clothing and textiles—a crucial industry in Cambodia that employs around one million people—account for around 75 percent of EU imports from the Southeast Asian nation.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun and Aun Pheap. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.