Hun Sen and Cambodia: No Semblance of Democracy
Since the beginning of the year, Intelligence Fusion has mapped out over 450 incidents in Cambodia. Most incidents can be classified in three categories. The first of which is drug related arrests and offences. While the Philippines has been the focus in the region regarding the War on Drugs, particularly due to its high numbers of extrajudicial killings, Cambodia has been wagging its own War on Drugs, with over 5,000 arrests since the beginning of the year. The second category are incidents related to smuggling, with a focus on luxury timber such as rosewood and thnong. Corruption within local governments and security forces has allowed Cambodians as well as some Vietnamese to illegally log protected forests and wildlife sanctuaries. Incidents have also seen loggers cross into neighboring Thailand, and bring back wood through Cambodia. The destination for this illegally cut wood is Vietnam, where saw mills prepare the wood to be sent to China, where there is a high market for furniture made from luxury wood. The third category combines thefts and arrests linked to thefts. Most theft incidents have been recorded in the capital, Phnom Penh, with motorbikes and cellphones the primary goods stolen. Most thefts of cellphones and purses are carried out by men on motorbikes who drive past their target, steal the goods, and flee the scene. Motorbikes are usually stolen if left unattended at an individualâs residence. While most incidents in 2017 have been in these three categories, the more serious incidents have focused on a trend exhibiting the decline of democracy in Cambodia: voter intimidation, inflammatory rhetoric, arrests of political opposition, and assaults on the free press and civil society.
Incidents in Cambodia since January 1st, 2017
Communal Elections and the upcoming General Elections
One of the most significant event this year in Cambodia was the communal elections. The opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), entered the elections feeling confident in their ability to get 60% of the representatives over the ruling Cambodia Peopleâs Party (CPP). This result would be a real blow to Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP in the run-up to the July 2018 general elections. The results of the June 4th, 2017 Communal Elections though were not as high as the CNRP believed they would be. The CNRP received 46% of the vote, up from 30% in 2012; while the CPP received 51% of the vote, down from 62% in 2012. While the trend shows a decline in the CPP and a rise in the CNRP, it is still a much needed victory the CPP needed, although too close for comfort. The election itself and the run-up to the election were marred with inflammatory rhetoric and election rules violations.
Prior to the election, Prime Minister Hun Sen had made a statement warning that war in Cambodia could return if his party, the CPP, was not the winner in the communal elections in June and in the general elections in July. He added to this that he was willing to âeliminateâ a hundred to two hundred people, if it meant ensuring the lives of millions. The week before the election, on August 31st, the Deputy Commander in Chief of the Army accused the CNRP of making statements amounting to incitements. The statement from the CNRP was that the military belonged to the nation and not one party, and that if elected, the CNRP would upgrade the army. The Deputy Commander in Chief responded to this statement by pledging support to Prime Minister Hun Sen, a statement made through Fresh News, a pro-government news outlet. On the day of the election, Transparency International Cambodia claims, and there were reports, that unauthorized personnel including soldiers and commune chiefs were present at a quarter of polling stations. There were also reports of buses of soldiers arriving to vote in communes where they were not from. These events appear to be an attempt to influence the vote through intimidation or through distorting the results with false ballots. Since before the election, and afterwards, Prime Minister Hun Senâs government has taken steps to weaken the CNRP and civil society, who are the biggest threats to Hun Sen remaining in power.
Crackdown on the Opposition
Since before February 2017, the CNRP has been a target of the ruling CPP. The former CNRP leader, Sam Rainsy, who lives in exile in Paris, resigned as leader of the party that month due to the CPP undertaking moves to dissolve the CNRP. The move was to pressure the CNRP before the communal elections in June, but results showing gains for the CNRP during the communal elections have now led to the CPP to go after the current leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha.
Since the Communal Elections, there have been several incidents in relation to the continued crackdown by the ruling CPP on the main opposition party and smaller political parties. On August 11th, police raided the headquarters of the Khmer Power Party in the hopes that it would lead to evidence that the leader was conspiring to form a government in exile. Two days later, the head of the party was arrested over comments he made on Facebook critical of Prime Minister Hun Senâs decision to send troops on the border of Laos over a piece of disputed land. This event clearly shows that any questioning of Prime Minister Hun Senâs decisions would be met with the full force of the government.
The most important incident exemplifying the crackdown on the opposition was on September 3rd when the leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, was arrested at his home on charges of treason. The charges stem from a speech Sokha gave in 2013 in which he mentions having received advice from the United States on political strategies, which has been interpreted as an attempt to overthrow the government. The Justice Ministry has ordered the CNRP to stop its argument that Sokhaâs arrest was illegal as he still had parliamentary immunity and there was lack of evidence, and to let the courts handle the matter. The CPP dominated national assembly, on the other hand, have said that the arrest was legal and justified as he was caught red-handed committing, even though the video was from 2013.
Since Sokhaâs arrest, reports have come in, from areas such as Kampong Chhnang, indicating that the CNRP have been banned from meeting to discuss the arrest. The CNRPâs Kampong Chhnang provincial executive director has said that the party members are not allowed to meet in a home or their offices, but may continue regular party business. They are only prevented from gathering to discuss the arrest of Kem Sokha. The ruling partyâs fear that the CNRP may rise up, has led them to put the National Military Police on alert a few days after the arrest, in the event of âcolor revolutionâ similar to those that have occurred in the Middle East and in the former Soviet Bloc, which have successfully toppled governments.
On September 11th, the national assembly, dominated by members of the CPP approved the case against Sokha on charges of treason. There was no motion to throw the case out, as lawmakers from the CNRP boycotted the vote, and instead over a dozen opposition lawmakers went to the Correctional Center 3 in Tbong Khum province where Sokha is being held, to attempt to meet with him only to be stopped by over 200 police officers and soldiers guarding the prison. The case against Sokha has led to the CNRP threatening to boycott next yearâs general elections, particularly as Prime Minister Hun Sen has said that any support shown by the CNRP towards its leader would lead the government to assume that the party is treasonous itself, forcing it be disbanded. In the weeks before and the days after Sokhaâs arrest, pro-government news organisation Fresh New and CPP politicians, have continued to publish videos of Sokha in the United States and Facebook posts accusing the United States of plotting to overthrow the government in Cambodia. This so called âevidenceâ of Sokhaâs treasonous actions come from Facebook accounts pushing conspiracy theories and with no standing, yet the Interior Ministry has said the prosecution would use them in the trial as evidence. Repression of the opposition party continued September 13th when a small gathering of CNRP lawmakers trying to undertake a religious ceremony in Wat Botum Park in Phnom Penh was blocked by 100 armed police officers.
While Prime Minister Hun Sen shores up support and guarantee of an election victory in the summer of 2018 by jailing political opponents, he has also attacked the free press and non-governmental organisations to ensure beneficial results.
Attacking the free press
A significant part of democracies is a free press with no interference from the government. In the last two months, Prime Minister Hun Senâs government has taken significant steps at curtailing the free press in Cambodia. Incident have included what can be considered intimidation of reporters, with an example being the Minister of Information posting a picture of a Cambodia Daily reporter on Facebook with a statement telling reporters to follow all laws regarding reporting on the communal elections. This comes after two reporters were accused of asking questions regarding politics at events and areas they were not allowed to. A reporter from Radio Free Asia, in April, was summoned to court to answer accusations that he lied to enter a prison and talk with political prisoners.
The most significant incidents to take place these last two months have been the closure of several radio stations and newspapers on accusations of not paying taxes or not being registered. On August 21st, the Moha Nokor radio station and its three affiliates were asked to cease operations for reportedly breaking their contract with the Ministry of Information. Additionally, 7 other media owners and their 11 radio stations across 10 provinces were asked to stop broadcasting over claims they failed to report how much airtime they were selling and to whom they were selling it to. These channels are broadcasters of programs such as Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, as well as programs by the CNRP. The Ministry of Information has assured the public this was not due to the content of the broadcasts, but to their administrative violations. In the wider picture of the crackdown on the media, this seems unlikely.
One of the most visible acts of the government towards curtailing the free press has been the August and early September war of words between the government and The Cambodia Daily, a newspaper which has been in existence for 24 years. A report on Fresh News, considered a government mouthpiece, leaked a document which was reportedly a $6.3 million tax bill that belonged to The Cambodia Daily. The Prime Minister and the Governmentâs Tax Department made very public statements that the paper pay the bill or be forced to shut down. The statements by the government were made without a proper audit of the newspaper and without fair negotiations between the two. The Cambodia Daily, on their end, said that the threats were politically motivated and that the governmentâs actions led to public vilification without due process. On September 4th, the newspaper made the decision to close its operations, but its owners are still liable for the tax bill despite closure.
A week after the closure of the Cambodia Daily, on September 12th, the United States-funded Radio Free Asia announced it will also close its Phnom Penh bureau and its in-country operations due to the recent crackdown by the media on journalists, newspapers, and the closure of more than 30 radio frequencies. Cutting the ability for independent broadcasts and opposition party broadcasts to be heard by millions of Cambodians play a similar role in delegitimizing the potential results of next yearâs general elections.
Cambodiaâs Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) was passed in July 2015. It has been criticized as a document made without proper consultation with those it would affect before, during, and after its drafting. The law consists of several parts such as: mandatory registration for all domestic and international organisations and associations (vaguely defined, and could include all citizen groups); the Ministry of the Interior has total discretion over the registration process (with denials or acceptance potentially being made with political considerations); there is no administrative option to fight a rejection of registration and foreign organisations cannot appeal in court; all those organisations that are registered must operate and maintain âpolitical neutralityâ(no definition on what this means); the law allows the government to stop organisations from operating at any time, as well as deport their staff, if they are not registered; agreement with international NGOs or associations can be terminated on grounds of âactivities which jeopardize peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture and traditions of the Cambodian national society.â The law has been used lately to pressure or shut down organizations that are accused of threatening the ruling party in government
On July 4th, the Interior Minister warned NGOs to comply with the law or face legal action. At the same time as this announcement, the Ministry ordered the ad hoc election monitoring group, The Situation Room, to cease any future monitoring activities. More significantly and leading up to the arrest of Kem Sokha and the anti-U.S. rhetoric, the Cambodian Foreign Ministry, on August 23rd, announced that it was shutting down the National Democratic Institute and expelling all its foreign staff from Cambodia. The organisation was funded by the U.S. State Department, and was shut down after it was accused of providing support to the CNRP to overthrow the government. These accusations came after leaks were published on Fresh News of what appears to be materials from a training seminar the organisation held, and unconfirmed correspondence between the organisation and a CNRP official. The Ministry said it used Article 34 of the LANGO regarding its ability to shut down any organisation that has not registered within 15 days. The U.S. Embassy has responded to this by saying that the government had not taken any action on its application for over 300 days, in violation of Cambodian law which requires the Ministry to respond in 45 days on the status of an application. This clearly shows that the government is willing to use the law for its benefit, but ignore it when applying it wouldnât be beneficial. The shutdown comes amid a rash of articles published by Fresh News that are critical to organisations funded by USAID such as the National Democratic Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the International Republican Institute.
Not all actions taken by the government have been so direct in crippling civil society in Cambodia. On August 31st, the government officially staffed a newly created âCivil Society Forumâ to influence policy in the sector. However, the forum was staffed by government officials, and had very few members from the civil society sector. This move is a play by the government to legitimize the LANGO with the forum which they have staffed to not be critical of the law. This is only the latest in the governmentâs effort to weaken the civil society sector which can be critical of government policies.
The not so veiled threats made by the CPP controlled government toward the opposition, the media, and the civil society sector, as well as their actual follow through on these threats, has put the legitimacy of the results in July 2018âs general elections in jeopardy, as well as put pressure on non-governmental organisations and media working within the country, particularly those receiving foreign funding or being critical of the ruling party. Condemnation by the international community on the imprisonment of Kem Sokha will not influence Prime Minister Hun Senâs actions. On September 7th, a senior Chinese diplomat met with the national assembly president and offered assurances that China was behind Cambodia despite international criticism. This relationship is strengthened with over $3 billion worth of goods exported to China from Cambodia, and $1 billion worth of Chinese foreign direct investment and $265 million in Chinese overseas development aid. Cambodia, as a member of ASEAN, provides an ally to China regarding the dispute between several ASEAN members and itself regarding the South China Sea. In July 2016, Cambodia was the country that blocked ASEAN from mentioning the international court ruling against China, over the South China Sea dispute, in an ASEAN statement.
With continued backing from China and a stable economy, the Prime Minister feels empowered to make these decisions, even standing up to the United States. Earlier in the year, Cambodia cancelled military exercises with the United States, reportedly at the request of China, while the boldness of the Prime Minister was on display on September 6th when he pledged to remain in power ten more years to âmaintain stability in Cambodia.â The announcement came on the heels of the Kem Sokha arrest, and heâs used it as well as the 2013-2014 anti-government violence to legitimize this move. In the same speech, the Prime Minister praised Fresh News. Fresh News has been at the forefront of the crackdown on the media, journalists, and non-governmental organisations, particularly in publishing unverified leaks and conspiracy theories which the government seem content using as evidence in the trial of Kem Sokha. With the closure of so many radio stations and independent newspapers, and with a willing outlet like Fresh News printing pro-government pieces, it will allow the Prime Minister to control all the messaging during next yearâs election cycle, furthering international doubts that free and fair elections will take place.
With a relationship with China that is only continuing to grow, and despite the U.S. Ambassador saying that the U.S. has no involvement in any plots looking to overthrow the government, the anti-United States rhetoric will continue on the part of the CPP government. There is a high probability that organisations funded by the U.S. government, who may not have already been targeted, may be expelled from the country using arbitrary reasons supported by the broad definitions in the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations. The step back from democracy that Cambodia is experiencing and a tense relationship with the U.S. will also have impacts on the wider region. Rapprochement with China may lead China to influence ASEANâs relationship with it through Cambodia, while a step back from the United States will slightly diminish U.S. influence and logistics for military and humanitarian missions in the region, particularly after reports in 2016 that the U.S. planned to stockpile equipment in Cambodia and Vietnam. Overall, the last few months has seen Cambodia take further steps backwards from democratic ideals. The crackdown on the opposition party, the media, and civil society has made it dangerous to be an individual or group challenging the status quo of the CPP being the ruling party. While no major violence has taken place in these last few months, communal elections that have shown that CNRP support has grown, particularly with the youth vote, which may forecast a future where anti-government rhetoric and protests increase potentially leading to violent crackdowns.