International donors are ending aid to Cambodia or ramping up threats to do so after Prime Minister Hun Sen defended a crackdown that critics say has damaged the country’s fragile democracy and thrown the legitimacy of an upcoming ballot into question.
Hun Sen’s government has faced widespread condemnation in recent months over actions targeting the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), as well as for orchestrating the closure of independent media outlets and restricting NGOs, ahead of general elections scheduled for July 2018.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court on Nov. 16 unanimously ruled that the CNRP be dissolved for its part in plotting a “coup” against the government, essentially eliminating any competition to Hun Sen in next year’s vote.
Since the decision, the international community has rained condemnation down on Cambodia and threatened to take action against its government if restrictions are not lifted. But Hun Sen has remained defiant, saying he would “welcome” any withdrawal of aid and that Cambodia will rely on assistance from China—one of the few countries to support his nation following the court ruling.
On Monday, during bilateral meetings on the margins of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) of Foreign Ministers in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, European Union chief of foreign affairs and security policy Federica Mogherini reiterated a warning to Cambodia’s government that it should not expect current levels of cooperation to continue unless the CNRP is reinstated.
According to a statement issued by the European External Action Service, Mogherini stressed to Cambodian foreign minister Prak Sokhon her expectations that “recent, significant steps away from the path of pluralism and democracy enshrined in Cambodia's constitution, such as the … dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party, will be swiftly reversed.”
Mogherini, who is also vice president of the European Commission, urged Cambodia’s government to free CNRP President Kem Sokha, who was arrested on Sept. 3 for allegedly collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)—charges the U.S. embassy has rejected.
The EU foreign affairs chief made clear to her Cambodian counterpart that “the European Union's development cooperation and trade preferences are reliant on [Cambodia’s] respect for fundamental human rights and democratic principles,” the statement said.
On Tuesday, Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs—which last week vowed to “review the forms of our engagement” with Phnom Penh—said in a statement through its embassy that Sweden “will not initiate any new government-to-government development cooperation agreements” with Cambodia, except in the areas of education and research.
“Sweden considers political developments in Cambodia deeply worrying,” the statement said, adding that recent measures against the opposition, the media and civil society organizations “represent a serious setback for democratic development and human rights” in the country.
“It will therefore not be possible to continue our support to the decentralization reform in its current form.”
The statements from the EU and government of Sweden are the latest to announce an end to aid or threaten to do so following the Supreme Court’s decision to dissolve the CNRP.
Last week, the White House said in a statement that the U.S. will begin taking “concrete steps to respond to the Cambodian government’s deeply regrettable actions” by terminating support for Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) and its administration of the July 2018 general election.
China was one of the few nations to speak out in support of the decision, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang telling reporters at a briefing last week that Beijing would stand behind Cambodia in pursuing its own development path.
Hun Sen on Monday proposed that the U.S. “cut off all aid to Cambodia entirely,” which he said would result in the “death of all local NGOs,” and warned that “those who die first will be the NGOs that are plotting against us.”
Observers have warned that aid cuts will adversely affect Cambodia’s garment sector, which provides more than one million jobs to workers, and note that Cambodia relies heavily on trade preferences from the U.S. and EU to support the industry.
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s government has continued its bid to eradicate all trappings of the CNRP from the political stage following last week’s ruling, preventing the party’s elected officials from continuing their work, and deploying authorities to remove billboards, flags and other opposition paraphernalia around the country.
On Tuesday, the National Assembly, or parliament, fired more than 100 civil servants from the CNRP, and confiscated official party vehicles and other equipment, according to an announcement from the assembly’s general secretary Leng Peng Long.
The civil servants will be given salaries until Nov. 24, at which point they will have to clear out their offices and return their supplies.
“Parliament has various agents who are waiting to receive all this equipment,” he said.
Nhem Savoeuy, deputy general secretary of the National Assembly, confirmed that the government had confiscated five vehicles from five CNRP officials, without providing further details.
Political analyst Lao Monghay told RFA’s Khmer Service that he viewed the National Assembly’s actions as borderline violations of the rule of law and democratic principles.
“They should not fire the CNRP administrative officials like this,” he said.
Hun Sen has announced that when the CNRP is dissolved, its parliamentary seats will be redistributed to other government-aligned political parties, and has pressured CNRP officials who were elected in Cambodia’s June commune ballot to defect to the CPP.
The CNRP holds 55 seats in the National Assembly, around 5,000 councilor positions at the commune level, and nearly 800 provincial/municipal level councilor positions.
Since Kem Sokha’s arrest, more than half of CNRP lawmakers, along with deputy presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang and a number of party activists, have fled Cambodia fearing retaliation by the CPP following electoral gains by the opposition in June’s commune ballot, which are seen as pointing to a strong showing in next year’s vote.
Reported by Nareth Muong and RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.