The European Union should sanction officials responsible for human rights abuses in Cambodia, the country’s banned opposition party said Wednesday, citing the bloc’s decision to prepare a list of Belarusian officials to be hit with sanctions following a post-election crackdown on demonstrators.
In a statement, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) expressed “great concern” over developments in Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko has violently suppressed protesters and strikers in the capital Minsk who have rejected what they say was a fraudulent Aug. 9 election that resulted in an extension of his 26-year rule.
The recent events had prompted an emergency summit Wednesday in which Charles Michel, the head of the European Council, called the polls in Belarus “neither free nor fair” and promised sanctions “on a substantial number of individuals responsible for violence, repression and election fraud.”
“The events in Belarus remind us of the oppressive methods used by the Cambodian regime, which has captured the state in the hands of limited circle of people close to the dictator Hun Sen through abuse of institutions and sham elections without participation of the opposition,” the CNRP said.
“Both Belarus and Cambodia face orchestrated unconstitutional oppression of the citizens by dictators who identify the state with themselves and want to destroy any notion of free thought.”
The CNRP was dissolved in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government. Along with a broader crackdown on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media—the removal of the popular party paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
“Just like in Belarus,” the CNRP noted, authorities in Cambodia have in recent months been arresting those who speak out against Hun Sen’s nearly three decades of rule and driven much of the opposition into self-imposed exile to avoid what they say are politically motivated charges and convictions.
The opposition party pointed to the arrest two weeks ago of outspoken union leader Rong Chhun, who was charged with “incitement to commit a felony or create social unrest” after alleging that the government had allowed Vietnam to encroach on Cambodian territory, as well that of six of his supporters who had joined near-daily protests in the capital Phnom Penh calling for his release.
“The situation in Cambodia, just as the situation in Belarus, requires the immediate attention of the international community,” the statement said.
“Those who oppress the people cannot enjoy the privileges of free communication, travel, cooperation and business with the democratic world. They need to bear the consequences of their actions, being directly and severely sanctioned by the international community.”
The CNRP said it welcomed a decision by the European Council to begin the process of sanctions against those in Belarus deemed responsible for violence, arrests, and fraud in connection with the election, as well as calls from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to bring “additional sanctions against those who violated democratic values or abused human rights” in the country.
On Aug. 12, the EU implemented the withdrawal of duty-free, quota-free access to its market under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme for some 20 percent of Cambodia’s exports—a decision that was announced in February.
The EU’s move came in response to the Hun Sen government’s failure to reverse rollbacks on democracy and other freedoms required under the trade arrangement—demands the prime minister has said are an encroachment on Cambodia’s sovereignty. Affected exports include goods from Cambodia’s vital garment and footwear industries.
Following the withdrawal, the CNRP last week condemned the government for failing to implement reforms required by the EU to avoid trade sanctions and called on the bloc to sanction Hun Sen and other officials deemed responsible for rights violations in Cambodia through visa restrictions and the freezing of their assets, saying that the tariffs would largely only impact the country’s workers.
However, the recent developments in Belarus and the EU’s decision to pursue sanctions against officials in Lukashenko’s government for similar violations, prompted the opposition party to redouble its efforts Wednesday.
Responding to the CNRP statement, CPP spokesman Sok Ey San told RFA’s Khmer Service that the situation in the two countries is “completely different,” adding that the opposition in Cambodia is “jealous” of development under Hun Sen’s government and will do anything it can to disrupt peace.
“They envy us—when they could not have power, they fled overseas and urged the EU to withdraw the EBA,” he said. “And now they want the EU to punish Cambodia just like Belarus.”
But CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua told RFA that if Hun Sen does not accede to EU demands, which also include the reinstatement of the opposition, he and his officials will also face sanctions.
“I believe sanctions can include travel to the EU and the freezing of their assets,” she said. “These kinds of sanction won’t affect regular people.”
An investigation by Reuters last October revealed that Hun Sen’s niece Hun Kimleng and her husband, National Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun, were among eight politically connected Cambodians to obtain citizenship in EU member state Cyprus through a controversial scheme that allows anyone willing to invest U.S. $ 2.2 million in the prosperous island nation’s business or real estate sectors to obtain it.
Use of violence condemned
The CNRP call for EU sanctions came a day after a group of 80 Cambodian civil society groups issued a joint statement condemning the Cambodian authorities’ use of violence against peaceful demonstrators and the recent arrest of more than a dozen activists since the arrest of Rong Chhun.
The groups noted that in addition to six more individuals who have been sent to pre-trial detention after advocating for the union leader’s release, authorities have also beaten and arrested relatives—most of whom are women—of former members of the CNRP who were protesting against their family members’ arrests.
“It is not a crime to call for your family to be released from prison. It is not a crime to speak out against your friends' arrest. It is not a crime to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people in your community and demand justice,” the statement read.
“All Cambodians have the right to peacefully protest without being shoved, beaten or dragged off by police. We call on the government to immediately release those arrested, drop charges against them and fully respect the Cambodian people's rights to free expression and assembly.”
Responding to the statement on Wednesday, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chhin Malin called on the Ministry of Interior to investigate whether the civil society groups had violated rules of impartiality as defined by the controversial Law on Association and Nongovernmental Organizations (LANGO).
Chhin Malin said that some of the group who signed Tuesday’s statement are “inactive” and sought to criticize the government “without foundation.” He added that the Cambodia’s courts are “independent” and would not yield to pressure from civil society.
“The government has implemented the law in general without targeting any specific group—if someone acts in breach of the law, they will be punished,” he said.
“The statement from the civil society groups is not the legal way to protect a defendant in a democratic society. If they want to help the defendants, they can only do so through due process.”
Koul Panha, the former executive director of and currently an advisor to local electoral watchdog Comfrel, questioned Chhin Malin’s right to make such a statement on behalf of the Ministry of Justice.
“This institution was not established to defend the authorities’ actions; it is supposed to uphold justice and human rights,” he told RFA.
“Our rule of law is very weak. The people can’t rely on the government and the government doesn’t understand its own role. The people are weak and powerless, and they don’t know who to ask for help.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.