Hun Sen jettisons last shreds of Cambodia’s democracy


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Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, has vowed to spend another decade in office, a day after his main opponent was charged with treason amid an escalating crackdown on dissent, The Wall Street Journal reports.

A court on Tuesday charged Kem Sokha, leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue party, with treason, an offence that carries up to 30 years in jail, The FT adds:

After the politician’s arrest at his home earlier in the week, Hun Sen accused him of colluding with the US.  Kem Sokha’s supporters say the charges are baseless, and accuse Hun Sen of systematically seeking to silence opposition for fear of losing next year’s election. The CNRP and other opposition parties performed well in local elections in June, narrowing the majority held by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).  …The southeast Asian kingdom has long been seen as a test case for democratisation and US-led nation-building since emerging from years of war, genocide, and autocratic rule in the early 1990s.

“Hun Sen’s regime maintained a surface adherence to democratic principles, while manipulating the political climate through the use of patronage and the carefully calibrated use of political violence,” said The Economist Intelligence Unit. “This has resulted in a see-sawing political climate in which Hun Sen has alternated periods of repression with times of relative relaxation geared towards placating foreign critics—and donors. Now, backed by a rising China and less reliant than ever on Western aid, the CPP is moving to repudiate the Paris settlement and reshape Cambodia’s political landscape permanently. “


Hun Sen has taken his crack down to a level not seen in decades, Council on Foreign Relations analyst Joshua Kurlantzick notes:

Last week, opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested on treason charges. He was just one of many people who have been caught up in Hun Sen’s crackdown. In recent weeks the government also has forced the National Democratic Institute (right) to remove its foreign staff from the country and end its programs in Cambodia. The Hun Sen government also has gone after the Cambodia Daily, one of the foundations of Cambodia’s independent press. The Cambodia Daily, which had been an important voice for independent reporting in the country, published its last issue yesterday [warning of Descent Into Outright Dictatorship]. Hun Sen also is threatening Voice of America and Radio Free Asia’s Cambodia outlets, among other media outlets and civil society organizations.

“Democracy is already dead. The party is in crisis. The CNRP leadership is being locked up. Everyone is in full fear of their security, not knowing what to come next,” CNRP deputy director-general of public affairs Kem Monovithya, Sokha’s eldest daughter, told Channel NewsAsia.

On Monday, prosecutors announced that they had charged Sokha with treason for conspiring with the United States to overthrow the government, the Lowy Institute adds. As evidence, they produced a video of a talk he had given in Melbourne four years earlier describing US support for democratisation in Cambodia. Under the Cambodian Constitution, parliamentary immunity is void if a member is caught committing a crime in flagrante delicto, or in the act, and the prosecutors said the video qualified.

Hong Kimsuon of the Cambodian Defenders Project, a group of legal experts, said there was no evidence to back up government claims of a conspiracy, VOA adds.

“He [Sokha] talked about political principles to walk with democracy to change the country’s leader,” he said. “There was nothing said about any attempts to topple the legitimate government.” Meas Ny, a political analyst, said the CNRP had fallen into a ruling party “trap”, adding that any reaction from supporters against Sokha’s arrest would likely me met with violence.


NDI’s critics in Cambodia have offered zero evidence that the organization is doing anything more than promoting democracy in a bipartisan manner to all parties, one observer writes:

Unless you regard promoting democracy itself as a threatening activity. As the US Embassy pointed out in a statement, the National Democratic Institute offered the same training to the ruling party as it did to the opposition party.

“This is just the latest action in the government’s campaign to silence proponents of democracy, harass civil society and restrict the media,” said Sen. John McCain.

“Speculation that the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) or NDI have a ‘secret agenda’ in Cambodia is wrong and baseless,’ said Jane Riley Jacobsen, senior director of public affairs at NED. “NED has never had a relationship, financial or otherwise, with US Intelligence agencies, and to report rumors of this is irresponsible,” she added:


Far from pursuing a covert agenda, NED is very transparent about its work and descriptions of all grants are listed on our website. NED supported its first project in Cambodia in 1989, with a grant to the Cambodian Documentation Center, which did critical work documenting the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge. More recently, NED has maintained a very limited grants program in Cambodia addressing issues of corruption and accountability, the development of business organizations, encouraging good governance, protecting labor rights and encouraging civic engagement by young leaders. “

News of Sokha’s arrest was met with dismay by the US and the European Union, CNN reports. In a statement, the US State Department said the arrest seems “politically motivated” and casts doubt on Cambodia’s ability to “organize credible national elections in 2018 which produce an outcome that enjoys democratic legitimacy.”….The European Union termed the arrest “a dangerous political escalation.” It also said, “This arrest suggests a further effort to restrict the democratic space in Cambodia and the space for independent reporting, comment and criticism.”

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