Southeast Asian members of parliament expressed “grave concerns” Thursday over what they called a “worsening human rights situation” in Cambodia, where the government has launched a crackdown on NGOs and independent media outlets ahead of general elections next year.
Since Aug. 22, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has expelled U.S.-funded NGO the National Democratic Institute (NDI), suspended some 20 radio stations that aired content by U.S. broadcasters Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and threatened to shutter the English language Cambodia Daily newspaper.
The NDI was accused by government-aligned Fresh News of helping the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) unseat the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of June commune elections and a general vote scheduled for July 2018, but was kicked out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for operating while its registration was pending, with the Ministry citing a need to strengthen “national sovereignty.”
The independent Cambodian radio stations, which had broadcast content critical of the government, were suspended on various technicalities for violating their agreements with the Ministry of Information, while the Cambodia Daily—which has also published reports attacking ruling party policies—was recently handed a U.S. $6.3 million tax bill and given until Sept. 4 to pay it or face closure.
In a statement issued Thursday, Association of Southeast Asian Nations Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) chair and Malaysian legislator Charles Santiago called the crackdown a “dramatic escalation of the government’s moves against critical, independent voices,” adding that it had raised questions over the fate of democracy in the country.
“For years now, Cambodia has been defined by a climate of fear, instilled by the ruling party as a tactic for remaining in power,” he said.
“But what has occurred in recent weeks is a legal assault on civic space unlike anything we’ve seen since the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991,” he added, referring to the agreement that ended the Cambodian-Vietnamese War and set Cambodia on the path to democratic rule.
APHR restated concerns it had expressed over the government’s Aug. 23 order to close the NDI’s Cambodia office, saying the move highlighted the “dangers” posed by the country’s Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO).
The LANGO was passed in 2015 with unanimous approval by CPP lawmakers, amid a boycott of parliament by the CNRP, and requires the 5,000 domestic and international NGOs that work in Cambodia to register with the government and report their activities and finances or risk fines, criminal prosecution and shutdowns.
“Ever since initial drafts were circulated, NGOs and others have raised serious concerns about the possibility that the LANGO would be used to arbitrarily shut down organizations the government deemed to be too critical,” Santiago said.
“The fact that NDI was expelled because it allegedly violated LANGO’s vague provisions regarding registration is proof that our concerns were legitimate, and the implications are stark for all foreign and local organizations operating in the country.”
Meanwhile, APHR said, recent attacks on independent media outlets “[indicate] a clear intent by the ruling party to curb freedom of expression ahead of national elections.”
APHR member and Philippine Congressman Tom Villarin warned that Cambodians are losing a lifeline to independent information that he said is “integral to the successful functioning of a democratic society.”
He acknowledged that no organization is exempt from paying taxes, but argued that debts worth millions of U.S. dollars cannot be “handed down arbitrarily” to companies such as the Cambodia Daily without allowing a process to dispute them.
“Closing down The Cambodia Daily in this manner is nothing more than a transparent attempt at limiting the amount of information Cambodian people can access on controversial issues,” Villarin added.
APHR also expressed concern over reports, including in government-aligned news outlets, implicating opposition members and NGOs in supposed plots to overthrow the government, which it noted Cambodian authorities have failed to condemn.
The group warned that the threat of political persecution against a number of individuals—including parliamentarians, opposition members, and NGO staffers—remains high ahead of next year’s vote.
APHR called on ASEAN member states and the international community to work to uphold previous commitments to support the development of democracy and human rights in Cambodia, including those contained in the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.
“In 1991, countries from around the world, including the ASEAN region, showed commitment to Cambodia’s democratic development when they came together to sign the Paris Peace Accords,” Villarin said.
“More than 25 years later, these same countries have a responsibility to step up and, at the very least, condemn what is happening in Cambodia and encourage respect for fundamental freedoms. Failing to act decisively to combat this serious crackdown will jeopardize all of the effort that went into securing that agreement.”
The statement marks the second time APHR has questioned the Cambodian government’s commitment to democracy, after expressing concerns over its decision to boot the NDI last week.
Earlier this week, the Permanent Mission of Cambodia to the United Nations in Geneva issued a statement defending the government’s measures, which it said “could not be read as a menace against any media outlet and Non-Governmental Organization, but … solely for the strengthening of the rules of law.”
The actions “have nothing to do with the upcoming National Assembly election,” the statement added, expressing frustration over a briefing note last week from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that warned of an “overall deterioration of the environment for human rights defenders and civil society in Cambodia” in light of the crackdown.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.