Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen defended the dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Friday—the last day of campaigning ahead of the country’s July 29 general election that has been widely derided as an unfree and unfair “sham” poll amid an ongoing political crackdown.
Speaking to tens of thousands of supporters in the capital Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said that the Supreme Court’s decision in November to dissolve the CNRP over allegations it was involved in a plot to topple the government, while stripping the party’s officials of their posts and banning many lawmakers from politics for five years, had helped Cambodia “avoid a civil war.”
“If we had not eliminated them with the iron fist of the law, Cambodia would have been at war by this time,” the prime minister said.
“We can say that was the best decision we have ever made, and we were happy to pay a price to do so, but we will not allow a return of war, to the detriment of the Cambodian people.”
While there is no evidence that the CNRP was involved in any plot against the government, all major incidents of political violence in Cambodia in recent decades were perpetrated by Hun Sen’s troops or body guards.
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 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.
Analyst Hang Vitou told RFA’s Khmer Service Friday that Hun Sen’s statement suggested the prime minister was concerned about how his actions would be viewed, and said he had repeatedly made references to war as part of a bid to intimidate the public into voting for the CPP.
“Hun Sen’s statement would likely cause the ruling party to lose the election if the dissolved opposition party was allowed to compete” on Sunday, he added.
The U.S. and European Union have already withdrawn donor support for Cambodia’s ballot, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy in the country, and Washington has pledged to deny visas to Cambodian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.
On Wednesday, U.S. lawmakers passed the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2018, which would allow Washington to bar Cambodian officials deemed responsible for limiting democracy in the country from entering the U.S. and block any assets or property they possess.
On Friday, Cambodia’s National Assembly, or parliament, denounced the U.S. House of Representatives’ passage of the Cambodia Democracy Act, calling it “another plot by the U.S. and its allies to systematically attack the Cambodian government, which refuses to follow their geopolitical path.”
Cambodia’s Senate issued a similar statement Friday, calling the Cambodia Democracy Act a “serious violation of the sovereignty of Cambodia by a fellow member state of the United Nations,” adding that passage of the legislation “clearly reflects the evil policy of the U.S. House of Representatives and its allies in plotting to attack Cambodian democracy, liberal pluralism, and the national election.”
Despite criticism over his government’s crackdown, Hun Sen and the CPP maintain that democracy is alive and well in Cambodia, and have said the election will proceed regardless of the CNRP’s participation.
The ruling party has been bolstered by a comparatively muted response to Hun Sen’s crackdown from the international community, while countries such as Japan and China have even pledged their support for Sunday’s vote.
Cambodian-Americans held a protest in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington on Friday, demanding that Beijing end its support for Hun Sen’s regime.
CNRP deputy president Eng Chhay Eang, who fled into self-imposed exile after the dissolution of his party, told RFA that protesters were frustrated with China, which supported the Khmer Rouge during the genocide of the 1970s.
“The Chinese government has allowed Hun Sen’s regime to become a dictatorship and persecute Cambodians,” he said.
“If China continues to support Hun Sen’s regime, I am afraid we will have a second genocide.”
Meanwhile, Cambodians in Thailand and the Philippines also petitioned the local offices of the United Nations on Friday, urging the world body not to recognize the results of Sunday’s election.
Stephane Dujarric, the spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general on Cambodia, said in a statement Friday that “an inclusive and pluralistic political process remains essential for safeguarding the progress made by Cambodia in consolidating peace.”
In the statement, Dujarric said the secretary-general called on “all political actors to reduce tensions and political polarization,” and urged the government to “uphold international human rights standards and in particular to ensure guarantees for civil society actors and political parties to exercise their democratic rights.”
At a press conference on Cambodia’s upcoming election in Bangkok earlier this week, 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.
Speaking at the same event, Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament and chairperson of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), warned 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.
Rights groups have urged the international community in recent weeks to reject the election results, demand the immediate reinstatement of the CNRP and the release of Kem Sokha and all other members and supporters, and call on the government to create conditions enabling the holding of a fresh election that complies with international standards.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.