International pressure continued to mount against Cambodia Tuesday as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government proceeded with a crackdown on the country’s opposition ahead of a general election scheduled for July this year.
Last week, Cambodia’s Council of Ministers approved a set of amendments to the constitution that would require opposition parties to “place the country and nation’s interests first” and forbid individuals from “undermining the country’s interest.” The proposed changes will come before the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) dominated National Assembly, or parliament, this week.
Beyond constitutional changes, the Council of Ministers has also recommended adding the crime of lèse majesté, or insulting the monarch, to Cambodia’s existing Criminal Code.
The proposals follow the Sept. 3, 2017 arrest of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha on charges of collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the government and a Supreme Court decision in November to ban the CNRP for its role in his alleged plot. CNRP lawmakers have been stripped of their posts and 118 of its officials have been banned from politics for five years.
In a statement on Monday, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said proposed changes to the constitution and Criminal Code “marked another worrying escalation of Cambodia’s descent into authoritarianism,” and urged the National Assembly to reject the amendments when they come before the chamber this week.
“These amendments are the ultimate rebuke to the achievements of the Paris Peace Accords,” said APHR Chairperson and Malaysian MP Charles Santiago, referring to the 1991 agreement that brought a formal end to Cambodia’s civil war and paved the way for democratic elections in 1993.
“If passed, the amendments would inflict deep, long-lasting damage to Cambodia’s institutional framework, further eroding the rule of law and entrenching the authoritarian system that has crystalized since the dissolution of the CNRP,” he added.
The APHR said the amendments would provide the authorities with additional grounds to “arbitrarily go after political parties and other groups,” and condemned vague wording in the proposals that would leave them open to abuse.
Another proposed amendment, which would add a clause saying that Cambodia “opposes any foreign interference in its internal affairs,” is “little more than a weak attempt at shielding the government from criticism,” the group said.
“Since the start of his latest crackdown, Prime Minister Hun Sen has thrown around the term ‘non-interference’ as a blanket deflection of any criticism of his regime and its policie,” said Tom Villarin, a member of the Philippine House of Representatives.
“Claiming ‘non-interference’ doesn’t give you free reign to violate human rights and deny your people a genuine choice at the ballot box.”
The APHR also called the inclusion of lèse majesté as a crime in Cambodian law “extremely worrying” and said that weak rule of law and misuse of other statutes suggests “serious potential for its abuse in Cambodia.”
Santiago called the proposed changes “striking evidence of the dangers of the de facto one-party system that has taken hold in Cambodia,” adding that without a credible opposition party, “the popular will is cast aside and the interests of the privileged few in power are all that matters.”
Last week, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) expressed “deep concern” that all of the CNRP’s 55 parliamentarians were stripped of their mandates and banned from political life following the Supreme Court ruling to ban the party, in a statement following the Jan. 25-Feb. 2 session of its Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians in Geneva, Switzerland.
In a decision issued following the session, the committee said that the measures have left the CPP with “no significant challenger ahead of the upcoming general elections,” adding it has “serious concerns about the conduct of credible, free, fair and transparent elections in 2018.”
It called on Cambodia’s authorities to “immediately reinstate all 55 members of the CNRP in the National Assembly, and to resume the political dialogue and allow the CNRP to field candidates for the upcoming elections,” and demanded that they end ongoing harassment of the party and its members.
The committee also urged the global parliamentary community, including relevant international and domestic stakeholders, to “engage in joint efforts to help resolve the current crisis in a manner consistent with democratic and human rights values, including by facilitating the resumption of a political dialogue, adopting public statements and making representations to the Cambodian authorities.”
The U.S. and EU have 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.
On Tuesday, Florida Congressman Ted Yoho reiterated concerns about restrictions on democracy in Cambodia addressed in a subcommittee hearing by the Committee on Foreign Affairs for the U.S. House of Representatives in December.
“The people of Cambodia have the right to assemble, to run for office, to have a voice of dissension, but we’re seeing a crackdown on that,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Hun Sen pretends that he has a democracy, but when you get rid of your opposition and put them in jail, and then outlaw the opposition party, you really don’t have a democracy. He’s not fooling anybody.”
He said U.S. lawmakers are proposing a set of sanctions “this month” that will put pressure on “people that are responsible for the breakdown of human rights, freedom of speech, the ability to be a candidate in an election,” with a goal to “open up the elections for other parties.”
Yoho called on the international community to band together and draw attention to the “sham election” planned for July, which he said will lack legitimacy “because they are not an open process.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan on Tuesday defended the recent actions against the opposition, saying the government is “doing its best to promote democracy and rule of law” and that critics from abroad are ignorant of the “real situation on the ground.”
“We have not persecuted the opposition party,” he said.
“They have committed the offenses themselves and they have to be held accountable.”
Sok Eysan also defended the government’s recent warning that NGOs in the country will be subject to closer scrutiny.
“There are almost 5,000 civil society organizations in Cambodia—only a few of them have broken the laws, and they must be closed down or expelled from the country,” he said.
“This is how our laws are enforced. We follow the laws. We strengthen the rule of law. When the rule of law is strengthened, so is democracy.”
In October, a group of 55 domestic and international NGOs said a “severe deterioration in the state of human rights and democracy” in Cambodia required a reconvening of the Paris Peace Conference.
A month earlier, Cambodia’s government expelled U.S.-funded NGO the National Democratic Institute (NDI) for allegedly operating without a valid Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and failing to comply with the country’s tax laws.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.