Cambodian opposition leaders and supporters wrapped up a weekend gathering in South Korea with a call for a concerted effort to “restore” democracy to Cambodia and an appeal for support from signatories of the Paris Peace Agreement, which reestablished elections there after years of conflict.
Seventy Cambodian politicians, analysts, rights campaigners, and former prisoners of conscience traveled from around the globe to Gwangju for an April 19-21 Cambodian Democrats Congress organized by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), where they exchanged ideas on reinstating democratic freedoms in Cambodia amidst a crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The CNRP was banned by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November 2017, months after its president, Kem Sokha, was arrested for an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
The dissolution of the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the opposition, NGOs and the independent media, which 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. The CNRP has since regrouped and remains active outside the country.
At the conclusion of the weekend’s Cambodian Democrats Congress, delegates concluded that the crackdown had forced Cambodia down the “wrong track” politically, and required that democrats from the Cambodian diaspora unite to realign the democratic process with that originally envisioned by Cambodia’s constitution and the spirit of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement.
The congress called on all political parties, the armed forces, civil servants, NGOs, Buddhist clergy, academics, laborers and farmers, both inside and outside of the country, to “actively participate in the restoration of Cambodian democracy” in accordance with the charter and the accord in a nonviolent manner.
Participants also urged all democratic countries—and particularly those who signed the Paris Peace Accord—as well as the U.N. and other international organizations, to “continue to render their assistance and support to Cambodian citizens and those struggling for democracy in Cambodia.”
The Paris Peace Agreements ended war between Vietnam and Cambodia on Oct. 23, 1991 and led to the United Nation’s administration of Cambodia’s government while the country transitioned to a system of democratic elections.
The congress demanded that Cambodian authorities also negotiate with the European Commission to seek political solutions and divert any possible economic sanctions leveled in response to rollbacks on democracy and Hun Sen’s crackdown.
The European Union decided in February to launch a six-month monitoring period to determine whether Cambodian exports should continue to enjoy tax-free entry into the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.
Cambodian Democrats Congress also called over the weekend for greater freedoms for NGOs and the media operating in Cambodia, as well as an electoral system that encourages fair competition from all political parties in a neutral political climate, where civil servants and security personnel remain unbiased.
The congress recommended that legislation be drafted to limit the mandate of all leaders to 10 years in office, and also called for a bill that limits the position of prime minister to two mandates, not exceeding 10 years.
The weekend’s gathering was accompanied by a candlelight demonstration on Saturday led by acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy to “liberate Cambodia’s democracy from dictator Hun Sen,” which were organized by local CNRP youth leadership and attended by some 8,000 Cambodian workers in South Korea and opposition activists from around the world.
The congress and demonstration took place despite earlier threats from Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan that Hun Sen could “take legal action against demonstrators overseas,” without providing details.
Reactions to events
Political commentator Kim Sok, who traveled from Finland to attend the events in Gwangju, told RFA’s Khmer Service that he considered the weekend a success, but said he believes some would-be participants chose not to come because they feared reprisals from Cambodia’s government.
“One drawback was the lack of courage to participate from other political parties, commentators, and civil society organizations who may have feared for their safety,” he said.
“But I believe that the congress was conducted well, both in discussion and through the resolutions it produced.”
Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, told RFA that he is concerned he could be targeted after returning to Cambodia from the congress, but said he had attended in the interest of the Khmer people.
“I came here to meet with democrats who are Khmers, like me—I can’t avoid meeting with those who are struggling for democracy,” he said.
“I’m working with all crucial political parties, including the ruling party … Fear makes people become biased, so by daring to work with both the ruling party and the opposition parties, I maintain my independence and neutrality.”
A Cambodian worker living in South Korea named Ros Saroeun told RFA that her mother back home had threatened to disown her when she attended the demonstrations in Gwangju.
“I’m not a politician, but I have a strong love for my country,” she said.
“I am working in [South Korea] and I see that their laws, living conditions, and their people are good. When I compare it to Cambodia, I don’t know how we can experience that change. We have to strive hard together for our country and our future generations … If we don’t, our country will be destroyed.”
While Cambodia’s government did not issue a statement in response to the conclusions offered by the Cambodian Democrats Congress, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan took to social media on Sunday to dismiss the candlelight demonstration as “dry and flavorless,” with “merely hundreds” in attendance.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.