The United Nations should review Cambodia’s membership status and member states must implement stronger measures against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government ahead of elections next year, according to participants in a panel discussion on the country’s recent crackdown on democracy.
Tuesday’s discussion organized by the U.S. and EU on the “Devolution of Democracy in Cambodia” at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York highlighted the government’s targeting of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), as well as restrictions to NGOs and the media, and considered approaches to ensuring the country returns to democratic norms ahead of the July 2018 ballot.
Joanne Adamson, deputy head of the EU Delegation to the U.N., opened the meeting by expressing concerns about the political situation in Cambodia, given the arrest in September of CNRP president Kem Sokha on charges of “treason” and the Supreme Court’s ruling last month that his party be dissolved for its part in the alleged “plot” to topple the government.
Kem Sokha’s arrest and the CNRP’s dissolution amounted to “a step away from the path of pluralism and democracy that we see enshrined in Cambodia’s constitution, and which has been supported for more than two decades by Cambodia’s international partners, including the European Union,” Adamson said.
“We expect the electoral process to be legitimate and we want to make sure that all voters are enfranchised to choose the parties that they wish to vote for,” she added, noting that the EU is currently assessing its development cooperation with Cambodia after recently deciding to withdraw funding for next year’s ballot.
Adamson called on Cambodia’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and all political parties in Cambodia, to hold more structured dialogue in a bid to “find a way out of this impasse.”
Kelley Currie, U.S. representative to the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council, said that the government’s crackdown on the opposition “is about the disenfranchisement of the Cambodian people—the effort to remove their choices and their voices from the discussion about Cambodia’s future.”
“That is what concerns us as a longstanding partner in Cambodia’s process of political reconciliation, democratization, and economic development. The United States and the international community are greatly concerned about Cambodia’s abrupt reversal in course.”
Last week, the U.S. and EU said they plan to compile lists of individuals who spearheaded the dissolution of the opposition and other rights violations in Cambodia, with a view to level sanctions against them, and have pledged to review trade agreements with the country.
Both the U.S. and EU have withdrawn funding of the election next year, and Washington recently placed visa restrictions on “individuals responsible for undermining Cambodian democracy” in response to the arrest of Kem Sokha and the dissolution of the CNRP.
Call for review
Speaking at Tuesday’s panel, Kem Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya, said that U.N. member states—and particularly signatories to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords that ended civil war in Cambodia and set the stage for multi-party elections—could no longer deny that her country had strayed from the path of democracy, amid the ongoing crackdown on the opposition, civil society, and the media.
“Those are all the pillars of a multi-party democracy, so if we do not have that, you cannot pretend that there is democracy or that the Paris Peace Accords are being implemented,” said Kem Monovithya, who is also a member of the permanent committee of the CNRP.
Signatories to the Paris Peace agreement “have an obligation to ensure the spirit of the accords is respected,” she said, adding that “we need more than statements at this point.”
Kem Monovithya said that member states should encourage the U.N. to include Cambodia on the agenda of the General Assembly in January, request the U.N. send a fact-finding mission to the country, and “review Cambodia’s membership” in the international body.
She noted that Cambodia’s commune elections held in June were considered successful and applauded by the international community, but months later the elected seats won by the CNRP were “stolen” from the party and redistributed, following the Supreme Court decision to disband it.
“How can we have confidence going into 2018 that the election would be free and fair … and even if it is free and fair, how can we expect that the result won’t be robbed from us again?” she asked.
“This is the job of the U.N., and I think it has to do with peace and security as well in Cambodia and in the region.”
Pa Ngoun Teang, founder and executive director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, highlighted increasing restrictions on the freedom of the press and echoed Kem Monovithya’s call for the U.N. to review Cambodia’s membership.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said that Hun Sen and the CPP had committed “numerous human rights abuses” while ruling Cambodia, and called the recent crackdown “a wakeup call to the international community to come to realize that this man and this party are not good-faith actors and need to be dealt with in … a transactional way.”
“We are calling for targeted economic sanctions [by UN member states] on the leaders of Cambodia—Hun Sen and the leaders of the CPP implicated in human rights abuses and crackdowns,” he said.
“In our view, focusing on them is what will get them to realize that the costs of what they are doing outweigh the benefits that accrue to them in terms of continuing the CPP’s dominance and not having to worry about the opposition.”
Sifton called for member states to hold a special session on Cambodia at the U.N. Human Rights Council in March to “set the stage” for an international condemnation of July elections widely seen as having lost their legitimacy with the dissolution of the only party that could challenge the CPP next year.
Ahead of Tuesday’s panel discussion, Cambodia’s Permanent Mission to the U.N. registered its “strong protest,” saying in a statement that the event was “politically motivated with the clear intent to mislead international public opinion” and runs “counter to the principle of respect for sovereignty and non-interference.”
On Wednesday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Chum Sounry told the pro-government FreshNews that “the attempt to have Cambodia’s seat in the U.N. withheld is like beating a hollow drum—it is highly unlikely to happen.”
Also on Wednesday, Hun Sen vowed to “stop talking” about the reinstatement of the CNRP in a speech to more than 10,000 factory workers in the capital Phnom Penh, saying the decision was final and reiterating his suggestion from earlier this week that the party’s officials create a new party to take part in the July ballot.
“Some people mocked me after I said that those who are not banned from politics should form a new political party to join the next elections,” he said.
“Let me tell them that if they do not partake in the next elections, we still have the elections anyway. I have already told you that the dissolved party will never be reinstated again. I will stop talking about that anymore.”
The prime minister said that Cambodia would not be held “hostage” by the opposition.
“I am not going to talk to you and I would also like my officials to not talk to those outlawed people from now on,” he said.
“The opposition party is dead now. But will Cambodia die too? Cambodians are not concerned with that. What they are worried about now is whether they have enough rice for their children to eat.”
Meanwhile, a prosecutor intends to question CNRP President Kem Sokha on Thursday and Friday about his role in what authorities say was a plot to incite a rebellion at the behest of the U.S.—charges both the opposition leader and Washington have denied.
Kem Sokha’s lawyer, Hem Socheat, has submitted a motion for his client to be transferred to detention in the capital Phnom Penh from remote Trapeang Phlong prison in Tboung Khmum province, where he has been held since early September.
Kem Sokha has been questioned by a prosecutor in his cell twice—once on Nov. 24 and again on Dec. 14. In both cases, members of his legal team took issue with the investigator’s line of inquiry, which they said assumed their client’s guilt.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service and Joshua Lipes. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.