Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen is moving his country toward one-party rule, a special U.N. envoy suggested Thursday, warning that civil and political rights in Cambodia are deteriorating rapidly, with deeply worrying implications for forthcoming elections and the future of democracy in the country.
The warning by Rhona Smith, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, came as the Interior Ministry launched legal proceedings to dissolve the key Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and is attempting to strip the party of its existing seats in parliament.
CNRP leader Kem Sokha was thrown in jail last month after being accused of treason, charges he denies and says are politically motivated. Almost half the CNRP’s 55 members of parliament have left the country following the leader's arrest.
Almost all domestically-broadcast media are now under government control.
"Modern Cambodia was established as a multi-party liberal democracy, respectful and protective of human rights," she said. "Its Constitution sought to prevent a return to a single-party state. Those who drafted the Constitution were all too well aware of the consequences of one-party rule."
Cambodia’s constitution was formulated following a set of Paris Peace Agreements, which brought an end to decades of conflict and violence in the country 26 years ago. A pillar of the constitution was liberal democracy,
“For Cambodians to engage in open and serious political debate, the opposition must be allowed to exist and to function without fear or intimidation,” Smith said in a statement. “Democracy is about voice and choice. These moves risk leaving many Cambodians without either."
She said any dissolution of the CNRP would affect Cambodians’ voice and choice at all levels of government, raising serious concerns about the representativeness of government, ahead of general elections due by July 2018.
'Rule by law'
Smith was concerned that the government was carrying out these measures under the guise of the rule of law.
For example, the legal action against the CNRP, launched in the Supreme Court last Friday, had been made possible by a series of amendments to the Law on Political Parties in March and July this year.
These created additional grounds for dissolving a party, some of which were broad and vague, she said.
Further legislative amendments tabled by Hun Sen's Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) for discussion this week contain elaborate formulae to redistribute the seats of a dissolved party between other parties.
“If these changes were applied to the current situation, it would bring into serious question the political representation of a significant portion of Cambodians,” Smith said.
“Rule of law is about more than the mere application of laws. All laws must respect human rights and must reflect the principles of fairness, justice and public participation. Otherwise, it becomes rule by law, not rule of law.”
At present, the CNRP holds 55 seats in the National Assembly, around 5,000 councilor positions at the commune level, nearly 800 provincial/municipal level councilor positions, and 11 senator positions through the Sam Rainsy Party, which combined with the former Human Rights Party in 2012 to form the CNRP.
Plans are afoot to distribute the CNRP's seats to five political parties after its dissolution, which will invalidate nearly three million votes it had garned in the last elections. The five parties only received more than six percent of the popular vote in 2013 polls.
The spokesman for the National Assembly, Leng Peng Long, told local media outlets that the four proposed amendments to election-related laws have been forwarded to the parliament's expert committee after scrutiny by the Permanent Committee of the National Assembly.
He could not say when exactly these proposed amendments to the four election-related laws will be sent to the National Assembly floor for final debate and approval by lawmakers.
"I wish to state that should a party be dissolved, five other parties will assume its place. This means that [the National Assembly] will be transformed from two-party control to a five-party control. It will happen shortly in the future,” Hun Sen said recently.
CNRP vice-president Eng Chhay Eang told RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday that the three million Cambodians who had voted for CNRP would not stand still and allow the ruling party to do anything at will.
“It is normal that when the water level has reached the level equal to our nose, one will try to grasp anything so as to save one's own life. They are trying to kill us; therefore, we cannot stand still and allow them to kill us easily," he said.
"I trust that half of our country’s population who voted for the CNRP will also not agree to this. And the international [community] will not let a dictatorial leader do anything at will which may plunge Cambodia into its dark past,” Eng Chhay Eang said.
The Australian government, meanwhile, warned that any removal of the main opposition party would be a significant setback to democracy and would undermine a free, fair, and transparent national election in 2018.
"The Cambodian people’s resolute commitment to multiparty democracy was demonstrated by the high turnout and results of the June 2017 commune elections," the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh said in a statement.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.