Experts Urge Stronger International Response Ahead of Cambodia’s ‘Sham Election’

A muted reaction will encourage regional dictators to follow Hun Sen’s lead, they say.

Cambodian People's Party volunteers and officials campaign at a cafe in Phnom Penh, July 24, 2018.

A group of experts on Tuesday called on the international community to do more to intervene in Cambodia’s rollback of democracy, as the country prepares for a general election next week that has been widely derided as unfree and unfair amid an ongoing political crackdown.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November over allegations it was involved in a plot to topple the government, stripping the party’s officials of their posts and banning many lawmakers from politics for five years.

The dissolution of the CNRP and the arrest of its president, Kem Sokha, as well as a months-long crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, are measures widely seen as part of a bid by Prime Minister Hun Sen to ensure that his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) stays in power in Cambodia following the July 29 general election. Hun Sen has ruled the country for more than three decades.

The U.S. and European Union have already withdrawn donor support for Cambodia’s ballot, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy in the country, and Washington has pledged to deny visas to Cambodian officials responsible for implementing the crackdown.

But neither the U.S. nor the EU have removed preferential trade access for Cambodian exports, despite mounting criticism over the actions of Hun Sen’s government in the lead up to the vote.

On Tuesday, John Cavanaugh, the Cambodia country director for U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI) said the response of the international community to Cambodia’s slide had been “disappointing,” and called for a stronger reaction.

“I think one of the reasons for the muted international response is the international community might be caught up in a feeling of complacency because of the Hun Sen's government pattern of applying pressure and then reverting back to normal,” he told a press conference in Bangkok.

“What we're seeing is this is not going to revert back to the old normal, this is a new normal ... so we really are calling for a much more aggressive international response.”

Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament and chairperson of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said that the lack of a strong international stance against Cambodia’s crackdown risked emboldening other regional “dictators” who might follow Hun Sen’s blueprint for solidifying their hold on power.

“Dictators in the region are colluding with each other and growing legitimacy for their rule when they are in total violation of rule of law,” Santiago said.

“It's important for countries ... to stand up to such violation of people's rights in Cambodia,” he said, adding that “the international community should not give any form of legitimacy to [Cambodia’s] sham election.”

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 the vote.

The party has called on Cambodians to boycott the election in protest over its dissolution, but the government has responded with the unsupported claim that doing so is in direct violation of the country’s electoral laws and will be dealt with in court.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, dismissed next week’s election as “fatally flawed from the start” and “the final funeral ceremony” for democracy in Cambodia.

“This election was won back in November 2017 when the CNRP was dissolved, and everything that has happened since then, in our view, has been a mockery of democracy, rather than an upholding of democracy,” he said.

“There is no real excuse, frankly, for the failure of governments to speak out.”

Call for boycott

Even with a ban in place against the CNRP, the CPP has aggressively courted votes—including outside of the official campaign period—and deployed senior members of the security forces to publicly endorse Hun Sen, Human Rights Watch said recently, in what is seen as an intimidation tactic and a violation of Cambodia’s electoral laws.

Reports also continued to trickle in Tuesday of authorities harassing members of the CNRP for organizing a boycott of the election, following a threat from Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng over the weekend to fine anyone who posts a picture of themselves online with a “clean finger”—referencing the India ink voters dip their index finger into to show they have cast their ballot—up to U.S. $5,000.

Kong Mass, a former CNRP official in Svay Rieng province, told RFA’s Khmer Service that local authorities came to arrest him on Sunday, and have been closely monitoring other members of the dissolved party in the region.

“They follow our CNRP supporters and officials closely, wherever they go and when they get together for meals at a friend or relative’s house,” he said.

“They wrongly accuse us of joining in the ‘clean finger’ campaign.”

Last week, United Nations’ Special Rapporteur to Cambodia Rhona Smith expressed concerns over reports of voter intimidation in the lead up to the election, highlighting reports of government representatives stating that abstaining from voting was illegal and that fines would be imposed on people messaging about a boycott of the vote.

On Monday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs slammed Smith’s remarks, saying in a statement that they “merit several questions due to their substantive bias and prejudice in the context of electoral sensitivity,” and suggesting she is supportive of the CNRP’s efforts to “sabotage a democratic contest” by encouraging a boycott.

But Smith returned fire on Tuesday in a statement relayed to RFA by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia.

“Cambodian law permits people to choose whether or not to vote, and all voters should be able to exercise this right in the election on Sunday,” Smith said.

“While Cambodian law does indeed prohibit anyone preventing or deterring voters, this provision should not equate with a restriction on boycott calls which are permitted by international human rights law,” she said.

“Restrictions on calls for boycott of a non-compulsory vote impede political debate and any such restrictions are inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression.”

Reported by Vanrith Chrea for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.