Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen applauded his government’s commitment to democracy Wednesday in his first public appearance since his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) swept an election widely dismissed as unfree and unfair, following the dissolution of the main opposition group.
Speaking during the inauguration of a new ferry line in the capital Phnom Penh, Hun Sen told reporters that his government had “achieved great economic success” in 2018, while “building a strong democracy and establishing peace” in Cambodia.
Hun Sen’s CPP has claimed a lopsided victory in Cambodia’s July 29 general election, saying it won some 77 percent of the vote and likely secured all 125 parliamentary seats in play as voters, many under threat of losing government services, ratified an outcome decided in November when the government dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
While ballots are still being counted and an official announcement is not expected until mid-August, unconfirmed preliminary results indicate a strong CPP showing, ensuring the long-ruling strongman will add another five-year term to his 33 years in office.
His claims that the government had upheld a vibrant democracy in Cambodia appeared to contradict the assessment of much of the international community, which has slammed the weekend’s election as a “sham” amid Hun Sen’s months-long crackdown on the political opposition, NGOs and the independent media.
Both the U.S. and the European Union had withdrawn support for the ballot ahead of the weekend, citing actions by Hun Sen’s administration seen as limiting democracy in the country, and Washington recently passed legislation that when fully ratified would allow for sanctions against Cambodian officials who are deemed responsible for the clampdown.
The U.S., the EU, and several other governments have issued statements since Sunday, decrying an electoral process that was “neither free nor fair” and “failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people.” On Wednesday, France joined the ranks, questioning the election results in light of Hun Sen authoring the dissolution of the CNRP and restricting the media.
The CNRP received more than 3 million votes—accounting for nearly half of the country’s registered voters—in Cambodia’s 2013 general election, and enjoyed similar success in last year’s commune ballot, making it the only legitimate challenger to the CPP before it was dissolved.
CNRP officials had called for a boycott to protest their party’s exclusion from the election, in the face of threats from authorities to withhold licenses, land registration and other government services from voters who did not turn out.
Meanwhile, reports continued to trickle out of Cambodia Wednesday about official efforts to punish those who chose to avoid the polls in protest of the ban on the CNRP and restrictions on civil society.
An officer with the Battambang city police department, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the department’s chief had ordered all officers to display their fingers while they stood for the national anthem on Tuesday morning.
“They wanted to see our fingers because, before the election, they told us to vote,” said the officer, referring to the India ink voters dip their fingers into to show they had cast their ballot.
The officer said that he and his colleagues had voted “to avoid punishment,” and that department officials “took pictures to post on social media,” adding that he considered the inspection to be a form of “intimidation.”
When asked about the incident, Battambang city police chief Pang Heang said his officers “volunteered to vote” and had proudly displayed their fingers during the national anthem.
“They have their rights and were not forced to do so,” he said.
Ying Mengly, the Battambang provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA “it is rare” for police officers to pose in groups with their fingers displayed, unless they had been forced.
“We urge the police and other authorities to refrain from pressuring anyone who didn’t vote or didn’t have black ink on their finger [after the election],” he said, adding that members of the public have the right to decide whether or not to cast a ballot.
Tax complaint filed
Also on Wednesday, Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) issued a statement saying it had received a complaint of “tax evasion” against Adhoc director Thun Saray and his wife, who have been living outside of Cambodia since May 2016 following threats of arrest for intervening in criminal charges against five officials from his rights group.
“The complaint, dated June 19, alleged that Thun Saray and his wife didn’t pay taxes on property that he leased to Adhoc in 2002 and 2006,” said the statement, posted on the ACU’s website.
The ACU statement added that the unit has records of Thun Saray paying taxes in 2016, but not from the previous year.
Thun Saray, who is currently living in Canada, told RFA that he had paid his taxes according to the law, and urged the Tax Department speak with him before proceeding with legal action that he suggested might be politically motivated.
“We have never received any notification asking us to discuss this tax issue,” he said.
“It would be very unjust to me to link this issue to a political issue.”
In September, the independent English-language Cambodia Daily was forced to close after being hit with a U.S. $6.3 million claim for back taxes by the Cambodian government. RFA’s Cambodia operations closed that same month after being accused by the government of tax and administrative violations.
Supreme Court appeal
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s Supreme Court has said it will hear the case of CNRP president Kem Sokha, who has been held in pre-trial detention since his arrest in September on charges of colluding with foreign powers to overthrow Hun Sen’s government.
Supreme Court deputy general prosecutor Chhuon Chanban sent a letter to Kem Sokha’s legal team on Wednesday, a copy of which was obtained by RFA, requesting that they attend a hearing in the case on the morning of Aug. 22.
Kem Sokha’s lawyers were not immediately available for comment. In previous RFA reports, his legal team have said Kem Sokha’s health is deteriorating and have pointed out that the government has yet to produce any evidence against him.
The opposition chief’s arrest and the subsequent dissolution of the CNRP are widely viewed as the beginning of the end of multiparty democracy in Cambodia, and critics of Hun Sen’s regime have repeatedly called for his release and the reinstatement of his party.
He has been denied bail four times since his arrest in September and faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.