Cambodia’s government on Monday outlined a plan to “strengthen democracy and political space” in the country following a divisive election, but observers said the proposal is aimed at alleviating international pressure and does not go far enough in rolling back restrictions put in place ahead of July’s ballot.
According to a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cambodia plans to amend the country’s political party law to lift a five-year ban on the political activities of 118 senior members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November last year for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government.
Cambodia’s government also vowed to promote “genuine partnership” with civil society groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), address matters related to labor and trade union rights, uphold press freedom and freedom of expression, and address longstanding land disputes by accelerating nationwide land registration, Monday’s statement said.
The political restrictions on the CNRP and the arrest two months earlier of its president, Kem Sokha, were part of a wider crackdown on civil society and media that paved the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to sweep all 125 seats contested in a July 29 election that was widely dismissed as unfree and unfair.
The U.S. has since announced visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of measures aimed at pressuring Cambodia to reverse course, and the outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt last week called on the government to free Kem Sokha and foster political reconciliation in the nation.
The European Union, which was the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, withdrew support ahead of the ballot and has said it will drop a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports based on the country’s election environment.
On Monday, political analyst Kim Sok told RFA’s Khmer Service that restoring the legal rights of the 118 CNRP senior members without allowing them to reestablish their party is insufficient.
“[The government’s] approach is firstly to benefit from easing of pressure from the international community in order for it to hold gradual talks or buy time against any possible sanctions,” he said.
“Secondly, [the CPP] intends to only allow the 118 CNRP politicians to return to politics—but not the CNRP … which means they will have no shelter. Their goal is to break up the bloc of the 118 CNRP politicians and sow opposition within their ranks, as they will lack leadership.”
Kim Sok added that Hun Sen may have felt forced to propose such a move because his leadership has been undermined by a lack of support from the international community.
“If Hun Sen does not properly return to democracy … international pressure will remain strong and it will affect his leadership,” he said.
“This is a good situation for the opposition to respond and use this momentum. They must be strong, and unite with one another to further put pressure on Hun Sen.”
Ly Srey Sros, another political analyst, told RFA that Hun Sen’s regime appears to be trying to resolve the tense political situation in Cambodia following international pressure, adding that the country stands to benefit if the government truly want to “open up the political space” without trying to divide the opposition.
But she warned that tricks aimed at benefiting the ruling party will only further destabilize Cambodia’s political environment.
Civil society and media
Soeung Sen Karona, spokesperson for rights group Adhoc, welcomed the stated pledge to improve guarantees for civil society and NGOs, but said that Cambodia has failed to uphold its commitments related to the protection of human rights and freedoms according to various international covenants and the country’s own constitution.
Cambodia’s government administers the country based on its leaders’ “sentiments,” he said, adding that civil society and NGOs are routinely subjected to restrictions ahead of elections that are gradually relaxed after the ballot is decided.
“We want to see stability—not just during the election or in the post-election phase,” he said.
“We don’t want to see [a repetition of] this present situation that would hurt our stability. We’ve lost a lot of time in this process of building respect for human rights and democracy and it feels as if we’ve made no progress.”
Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) director Nop Vy told RFA that the government’s statement pledging to uphold press freedom and freedom of expression was “only the first step,” and said other restrictions that create a hostile environment for the media must also be addressed.
“This means that there [should be] no lawsuits filed against journalists—all lawsuits against journalists must be dropped,” he said.
“Secondly, all licenses for banned radio stations should be re-authorized by allowing all station owners to enjoy their full right to air the programs they want.”
After eliminating his main political challenger last year, Hun Sen turned his attention to silencing critics of his rule.
In May, The Phnom Penh Post—Cambodia’s last independent daily—was sold for an unknown sum to a Malaysian investor with ties to Hun Sen following the out-of-court settlement of a U.S. $3.9 million claim by the government for alleged unpaid back taxes, prompting an exodus by several senior members of the newspaper’s reporting staff.
The sale of the Post came less than 10 months after the forced closure of the Cambodia Daily, another independent newspaper that was also pressured over claims of unpaid taxes, and the shuttering of several independent radio programs. RFA closed its operations in Cambodia in September amid government pressure.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan referred questions about Monday’s statement to relevant ministries, but requests for comment to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Information were declined.
The government’s proposal comes a day after the CNRP appointed former president Sam Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid a string of politically motivated convictions, as acting president of the party while Kem Sokha remains detained in Phnom Penh facing charges of treason.
Kem Sokha was granted bail in September but remains under house arrest, is barred from meeting with CNRP officials or foreigners, and cannot speak at or host any rallies or political activities.
Speaking to RFA at the end of the CNRP’s two-day conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Sam Rainsy said that more than 400 CNRP officials representing the global branches of the party chose to appoint him acting president “so that the party has a leader to lead it” through Cambodia’s current political crisis.
“Today is the day that our party resumes our operations with a clear and strong leadership,” he said.
“We will start making appropriate and timely decisions regarding CNRP strategies, tactics and action plans both within and outside of the country.”
The CNRP’s global priority is “making sanctions come into effect” against Hun Sen’s government, Sam Rainsy said, as well as a “true solution whereby Kem Sokha is released.”
“We want international sanctions to directly hit the point by leading to Kem Sokha’s release, as well as to provide freedom for politicians to operate,” he said.
“In order that journalists and union members have freedom, first we need freedom for politicians, since they are the ones who struggle for citizen rights and freedoms. So we will let Hun Sen solve the problems that he created for the CNRP and then everything will be eased gradually.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.