Democracy in Cambodia Under Threat Amid ‘Climate of Fear’

Demonstrators Demand Release of CNRP Official Held in ‘Fake’ Accident Protestors in Poipet demand the release of local CNRP official Din Puthy charged with assault for allegedly hitting border policeman Chhean Pisith with his car, Dec. 29, 2016.

Cambodia’s ruling party under Prime Minister Hun Sen has created a “climate of fear” as the government widens a crackdown on the opposition and activists ahead of commune elections in June, a group of Southeast Asian politicians said Monday.

In a report titled “Death Knell for Democracy,” the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said democracy in Cambodia is being “systematically dismantled,” calling recently passed amendments to the country’s law on political parties the “culmination of an ongoing effort to undermine the capacity of the political opposition.”

“Over the course of the past two years, an assault on free expression, dissent, and opposition by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has targeted nearly all segments of Cambodian political life,” the report said.

“This has significantly impacted the opposition’s ability to function—both within Parliament and outside it—and has created a climate of fear, which casts a dark shadow over all of Cambodian society.”

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) officials have warned that the CPP seeks to prevent its candidates from standing in the upcoming elections through a variety of different measures, including the passage of amendments to the political party law approved by the National Assembly on Feb. 20, despite an opposition boycott of parliament in protest.

The new law bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party and forced former CNRP president Sam Rainsy to resign last month to preserve the party. Other amendments put the party at risk of being dissolved for fanning “disunity,” which observers say is deliberately vague.

Since a “culture of dialogue” broke down with the CNRP in mid-2015, the CPP has launched a series of politically motivated cases, eroded parliamentary immunity protections, and orchestrated violence against opposition politicians, according to the APHR, a group made up of former and serving Southeast Asian lawmakers.

“The CPP’s tactics have increasingly threatened not only the safety of opposition parliamentarians, but the credibility and effectiveness of democratic institutions themselves, including the capacity of the Parliament to serve its legislative, representative, and oversight roles,” the report said.

The report noted that at least 17 opposition parliamentarians, out of 66 in the National Assembly and Senate combined, have been direct victims of harassment and attacks—judicial or physical—while others face what it called “looming threats in an unpredictable and hostile political climate.”

‘Renewed dictatorship’

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told reporters in Bangkok at the launch of the report that Cambodia is suffering from a “disease of renewed dictatorship.”

“There is a renewed attack, not only on the opposition parliamentarians, but also on civil society, on independent media, on human rights defenders, on community-based groups and organizations who are trying to defend their area, their way of life, their land,” he said.

“At this rate Cambodia is more on its way to … the one-party rule wearing an ill-fitting robe of democracy that you see in places like Vietnam or Laos—where the outcome is never in doubt and the candidates are vetted and controlled by the party.”

Robertson called the passage of the amendments to the law on political parties “the capstone to what has been going horrible the whole year in Cambodia,” adding that it had “basically put a gun to the head of the CNRP” ahead of elections the CPP is afraid of losing.

“Hun Sen was all for democracy—or the facade of democracy—but he's actually not prepared to accept any real challenge to his power that comes through that system,” he said.

“People realize that he is the head of a party that has been looting the Cambodian economy for years … He's now figuring out how you rule without popular support. The answer, with the political party amendment, is that 'if you don't like me, we’ll make sure there are no other choices.’”

Cambodia’s government spokesman Phay Siphan on Monday dismissed the APHR report as a political attack and said it violated ASEAN statues prohibiting member countries from interfering in one another’s internal affairs.

“They act like the puppet of a political group that is manipulating the terms of ‘justice and freedom’ in Cambodian law for their propaganda,” he said.

“Cambodia have followed the election laws. Elections have been held regularly in accordance with the will of Cambodians. Several parties have participated in each election. Cambodia is much better than some ASEAN countries [at holding elections].”

King’s appeal

Also on Monday, Cambodia’s top electoral body, the National Election Committee (NEC), published for the second time a rare open letter penned by the country’s King Norodom Sihamoni, urging all registered voters to cast their ballot in the June 4 commune elections.

In the letter, dated Feb. 20, the king exhorts registered voters to take part in the election, which he pledges will take place “in accordance with the democratic and multiparty principle, where voters can cast their ballots in secret.”

Voters should not be afraid to choose candidates who best represent their interests, despite outside influences, Sihamoni adds.

“Do not feel pressured, threatened or intimidated by any individual or political party,” the letter reads.

“Please exercise your right to cast your vote with your own conscience and faith to a candidate of political party of your own choosing.”

The CPP won more than 70 percent of the vote and secured 1,592 of 1,633 communes in Cambodia’s 2012 local elections, held before the CNRP was formed. The opposition party won nearly half of the vote in the general election the following year.

Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP, which has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years, a run for its money in the June polls—a race that many believe may foreshadow the general election in 2018.

Reported by Sereyvuth Oung and Maly Leng for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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