UN Expert Urges Cambodia to Take ‘Final Opportunity’ to Return to Democracy Ahead of Elections

Rhona Smith calls for the release of opposition leader Kem Sokha and the reinstatement of his party.

United Nations human rights envoy Rhona Smith speaks to the press at her office in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, Oct. 19, 2016.

The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur to Cambodia Rhona Smith on Monday called on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to immediately release detained leaders from the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and to reinstate the party ahead of an upcoming general election.

In a statement released at the beginning of the two-week process of registration of political parties for the July 29 ballot, the U.N. human rights expert said the government must end its crackdown on the CNRP “to ensure a genuine multi-party democracy in Cambodia which respects its citizens’ participation rights.”

“No election can be genuine if the main opposition party is barred from taking part,” Smith said, referring to the CNRP, which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November following the arrest of its president Kem Sokha two months earlier over an alleged plot to topple the government.

“Those who currently rule the country have one final opportunity to reverse the current trajectory, and return instead to the constitutional path of multi-party democracy and genuine elections—ensuring a level playing field for all political parties.”

As part of the Supreme Court’s ruling to dissolve the CNRP, 118 of the party’s members were banned from political activity for five years, and all of the party’s local and national seats were reallocated to unelected members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and other government-aligned parties.

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 ahead of July.

But Kem Sokha remains in prison on charges of “treason” over comments he made in 2013 about a political strategy to challenge the government, while the CNRP’s former president, Sam Rainsy, is living in self-imposed exile to avoid convictions in several cases widely seen as politically motivated.

Several other CNRP lawmakers and activists have also fled abroad since the party was dissolved, fearing arrest and harassment.

In addition to a crackdown on the opposition, Hun Sen’s government has also forced the closure of media groups and NGOs who have been critical of his leadership in recent months.

On Monday, Smith called on Cambodia’s government to ensure that the country’s political process remains all-inclusive.

“All Cambodians have a rights to openly debate and discuss political affairs; the media must be allowed to scrutinise and criticise, as well as inform the public; and civil society, including NGOs, should be encouraged to play an active role in State affairs,” she said.

“A liberal multi-party democracy is an essential, entrenched and non-amenable feature of the Constitution of Cambodia.”

Sam Rainsy responds

Sam Rainsy on Monday praised Smith’s statement, telling RFA’s Khmer Service that “such a warning should be well noted by Hun Sen.”

“He should know that if the CNRP is excluded from the upcoming election, the result of the election will not be recognized—it will be regarded as illegitimate, and the government elected as the result of such a sham ballot will have no mandate,” he said.

“Because of that, I am confident that the CNRP will inevitably return to Cambodia's political stage very soon. Hun Sen’s government survives by begging for money from donor countries, but those countries won’t continue to give him money if his government lacks legitimacy.”

Both the U.S. and EU have withdrawn donor support for Cambodia’s elections, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy in the country, including the banning of the CNRP and the arrest of Kem Sokha.

Sam Rainsy’s comments followed an online appeal to supporters, calling on them to boycott July’s election if the CNRP is not allowed to participate.

In the message posted to his Facebook account on Monday, the former CNRP president said that the party is the only force “fighting for positive, democratic and peaceful change” in Cambodia, and that any other party which “takes part in the fake election to capitalize on the CNRP’s absence is no more than a puppet controlled by the ruling party, which is clinging to power.”

Since the dissolution of the CNRP, at least four political parties have registered with the government.

“If, at the next election, the CNRP is absent and the majority of the Cambodian people decide not to vote for any party, we would then all contribute—through our boycott—to denying legitimacy to a fake election,” Sam Rainsy said.

“We would also deny legitimacy to a dictatorship which has destroyed democracy in our country and is being condemned by the world community of democratic nations. In the present circumstances, only such a boycott can help bring about a democratic change and help us gain the freedom and justice we have been longing for.”

Election to proceed

The CPP did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Smith’s statement.

But speaking at a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh on Monday morning, Hun Sen vowed that Cambodia’s election would proceed as scheduled, regardless of the CNRP’s participation.

“No postponement of election is allowed unless the constitution is amended,” the prime minister said.

“However, there is no reason for such an amendment. Everything is set go as scheduled. The matter is now in the hands of the National Election Committee (NEC),” he added, referring to Cambodia’s highest electoral body.

Hun Sen said that Cambodia remains a true democracy by holding regular elections, unlike some countries, which “claim to be democracies even though they don’t hold ballots.”

“Some countries have only one political party to compete in elections, with candidates from the same party running against each other, and this is regarded as part of the democratic process,” he added.

Hun Sen also mocked the CNRP for suggesting that newly formed political parties were puppets of his regime.

“If the new parties shared the same values as the ruling party, they would just join the CPP, rather running their own parties,” he reasoned.

Labor Day

Also on Monday, Ath Thon, the president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union, slammed a decision last week by officials in the capital Phnom Penh to deny permits for unions to march through the city to mark Labor Day, calling it the latest of a number of restrictions on freedom of assembly that the government has put in place in the lead up to July’s election.

But he said that his group would not challenge authorities, as he believes “actors may have been called on to sow chaos and arrest union leaders” if they decide to march as originally planned.

At the end of last week, officials in Phnom Penh said unions must keep Tuesday’s May Day rally confined to Freedom Park, far from the city center, citing concerns over security, safety and public order, as well as to avoid traffic jams.

While groups are only required to give advance notice under the Law on Peaceful Demonstrations, city officials have banned Labor Day marches annually. Unions have defied the bans in the past.

In a statement Monday, Aruna Kashyap, senior women’s rights counsel at New York-based Human Rights Watch said the government’s constraints on freedom of assembly and restrictions on holding Labor Day marches “highlight the uphill road to reform facing Cambodian workers and their advocates.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.