CAMBODIA’S Prime Minister Hun Sen has been taking drastic action to dismantle any credible opposition and silence dissent in the country, in what is being seen as an unashamed attempt to remain in power come the general election next year.
In recent months, the government has jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha on allegations of treason and threatened other Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) members with arrest. In response to the threats, more than half of CNRP lawmakers have fled abroad fearing for their freedom.
The culmination of Hun Sen’s efforts to eradicate any opponents came last week when the government filed a lawsuit to the Supreme Court demanding the opposition party be dissolved ahead of next year’s crucial national elections – a move that Hun Sen is now touting as a boon for democracy.
On Thursday, discussing a proposal to redistribute the CNRP’s National Assembly seats “when” – not if – the party is dissolved, Hun Sen said, “They talk about the multi-party problem, but I want to confirm that when the one party is dissolved, there will be five parties that will replace it.” He also called Cambodia a “heaven for political parties,” adding the dissolution of CNRP would happen “soon.”
The government has also been running a systematic shutdown of media organisations and NGOs that have been vocal critics of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
While the crackdown has been severe, it has not come as a surprise to those in the opposition who continue to fight for both their freedom and fair elections. But, given the latest attempts at dissolution, they fear there is now little room for recourse.
“We are literally unable to do much, our officials from top to bottom face a security threat,” Monovithya Kem, CNRP deputy director-general of public affairs and daughter of jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha, told Asian Correspondent.
“We can only urge other stakeholders including the international community and the Cambodian public to stand with us on the side of democracy.”
Given the success of Hun Sen’s campaign to dismantle the opposition, Kem Sokha fears this fledgeling democracy may start to lose faith in the system.
“Unfortunately, if the situation isn’t reversed soon, people will lose faith in the system, and that is dangerous for everyone. For now, people are waiting impatiently,” she said.
But for many Cambodians, it seems it may already be too late.
Voter registration for next year’s election ends on Nov 9, but only about 350,000 people have registered so far out of the expected 1.6 million newly eligible to cast a ballot. According to Khmer Times, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel) is concerned about the low turnout, believing it to be linked to the tumultuous political climate – and the Cambodian people themselves seem to echo this sentiment.
Wanting to understand the feelings at the local level, Asian Correspondent spoke to Theoun, a coordinator living in Siem Reap, who believes the people are hugely disillusioned.
“Every Cambodian that I know of has no faith in the system. It is never meant to help the poor, it is a system established for one man to rule all,” he said.
“Every faction of the government is run by nepotism and corruption. It’s so widespread that even the CNRP can’t do anything about it.”
Theoun explains the ruling CPP will never have the support of the poor in the country as they continue to “ignore”, “crush and threaten them with war.” He also has little hope for the establishment of a credible opposition as anyone who voices dissent is overpowered by the CPP like “a pack of lions killing a wounded deer.”
But it may not only be the poor who are dismayed by the political climate. Por Lee, a Cambodian small business owner, believes the upper echelons of society – and even party members – may be tiring of Hun Sen’s behaviour.
“I believe most Khmers have lost faith in the system including the rich and the powerful in the CPP,” he said. “The reasons why I say that is because many, if not most, have or try very hard to obtain foreign passports.”
“As for the average and the poor in the country, the system has obviously failed them miserably, from healthcare to justice system, from infrastructures to education. Only the top ten per cent reap the benefits.”
Despite the desire for change, without a credible opposition party, people are still understandably reluctant to vote at all in 2018.
Technically, Cambodia has dozens of political parties. But despite the sometimes crowded ballots, according to The Phnom Penh Post, the only two parties that have shown an ability to mobilise large numbers of voters are the CPP and CNRP, which took 48 percent and 44 percent of the popular vote, respectively, in the 2013 national election. The next runner-up, the royalist Funcinpec party, captured just 3.66 percent of the vote, failing to win a single seat after a decades-long slide into irrelevance.
Hun Sen’s contortions of the law are designed to keep his opponents & international community on the back foot playing defense. #Cambodia
— Monovithya Kem (@MNVKem) October 11, 2017
“I will not vote in next year’s election if the CNRP is to be dissolved,” said Thoeun. “It sounds as I am not doing my part as a good citizen of this country. In reality, I have no one to look up to.
“Those small parties will not make a difference even if I vote for them. They are too busy fighting with one another.”
While representatives of the EU, US and Australia have all stressed the importance of competitive elections, there has been no suggestion on the part of the Prime Minister that he is listening or has any intention of taking instruction from the West.
— Monovithya Kem (@MNVKem) October 9, 2017
With the credibility of next year’s election rapidly slipping away, is there any way to bring it back from the brink and restore faith in its legitimacy?
“Kem Sokha needs to be released before the end of the voter registration period; local radio stations, along with Cambodia Daily, need to be reinstated; and election-related NGOs such as Comfrel and the Situation Room group need to be able to conduct their work fully,” said Monovithya Kem, when asked what needs to happen to restore free and fair elections.
Given Hun Sen’s aggressive stance and reluctance to relinquish power, this seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. The answer will likely lie outside of the Cambodian borders.
While Hun Sen has been openly critical of the United States – a former ally – and has been positioning himself to align with Beijing, Kem still believes the West holds enough sway over the government to pressure them into compliance.
“The international community has an obligation to ensure free, fair elections in Cambodia, especially the EU, US, Japan and Australia who aid the process,” she said. “Cambodia cannot survive without their endorsements and engagements, far beyond just aid, so they have plenty of leverage over the Cambodian government.”
As for the future of democracy in the country? Theoun believes the key lies in the next generation.
“Democracy lies within the near future,” he said. “The younger generation is more educated and far more rebellious than the old ones. They will put an end to dictatorship.”