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Why There Won’t Be a Cambodian Spring This Election Year
Despite being well versed in the chaotic metropolises of South East Asia, I still found myself surprised by the coarseness of Cambodia’s capital city when I visited for the first time last month. Half-finished construction sites spill out into the roads, depriving pedestrians of footpaths and adding to Phnom Penh’s not-quite-finished character. Yet for the capital of a country that is now just three months away from a general election, there is a notable absence of the usual broad-faced men bearing grins and upwards pointing thumbs that you might expect to see postered to the sides of buildings and billboards. You may, in fact, be forgiven for not knowing that there is an upcoming election at all.
Cambodia’s leader, Hun Sen, is the world’s longest-serving prime minister having held the position since 1985. Rising to power as a battalion commander under the Khmer Rouge, he defected to Vietnam and became a leader of the rebellion against the regime before being appointed as deputy prime minister in the Vietnamese-installed government in 1979. Since then, Hun Sen has refused to relinquish power, and despite losing a UN-sponsored election in 1993 he went on to lead a successful coup against his co-prime minister, cementing his position at the head of the ever-incumbent Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). His reign has been characterized by the stifling of democracy and unabashed brutalizing of the opposition.
At the head of a government widely accepted as one of the world’s most openly corrupt, Hun Sen’s immediate family is known to have registered interests in over 114 domestic private companies, holding total or substantial control in 90 percent of them. These sectors span the breadth of the economy, from construction to hospitality, telecoms to media, and finance to mining. His relatives also hold key positions within the government and the military, increasingly embedding themselves into the country’s elite apparatus.
In the four years since there has been an undeniable systematic dismantling of the opposition party, and an intensified purge of government critics. With the assistance of the state’s judiciary, the party’s new leader Kem Sohka was arrested for treason in September 2017, while over 100 members of the CNRP’s leadership have been banned from participating in politics for the next five years.The only serious contender to have challenged the rule of the CPP was the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Formed in a merger of two opposition parties and united under prominent reform campaigner Sam Rainsy, the party won a 44 percent share of the vote in the 2013 general election, nearly topping the CPP’s 49 percent. Despite Human Rights Watch supporting the CNRP’s accusations of electoral fraud, citing the registering of voters in multiple provinces and the issuing of fake election documents by the CPP, the incumbent government denied calls for an independent review into the election.
In November 2017, the Supreme Court officially disbanded the CNRP, eradicating the only serious contender in the upcoming general election and making the CPP’s landslide victory inevitable. The day was branded “The Death of Democracy” by the Phnom Penh Post, one of the only remaining English-language publication not closed down in recent years.
Sam Rainsy, who has been in exile since 2016 after being charged with defamation for accusing Hun Sen’s government of murdering the high-profile political activist Kem Ley, has since set up the offshoot Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM) in an attempt to pull together an opposition ahead of the election. However, rather than uniting the opposition, this has further fractured relations with some adamant members of the disbanded CNRP who are opposed to the abandonment of their party. Many more are refusing to publicly support the new party in fear that their association could lead to their arrest if this party is targeted by the CPP too.
In this climate of intense frustration some commentators are questioning whether Hun Sen has gone too far, and in fact sealed his own fate by inciting a public uprising against the CPP. While others have underlined the claim that only 30 percent of the junior members of the armed forces now genuinely support the regime.
Yet while it is true that frustration is growing among Cambodian pro-democracy activists, there is no “Cambodian Spring” in the offing. Hun Sen’s position in the country has never been stronger; with no organized opposition to challenge him and near total de facto control of the judiciary, military, police force, and press.
I spoke to Dr. Sorpong Peou, a Cambodian-born Canadian professor at Ryerson University and an expert on politics and security in Cambodia, about the country’s immediate political outlook.
“My prediction is that anti-government protests and demonstrations are likely to develop as the July elections are fast approaching, but I don’t know if they will be sustained. The opposition, in my opinion, has weakened and will not be resilient. [Whereas] the CPP-led government is likely to use force to crush or thwart any movements seeking to challenge its power.”
When asked if he believed that Hun Sen could maintain power for the next decade, as he has stated his intention to, he told me there was no doubt about it. “Hun Sen cannot afford to lose because losing in Cambodia can mean the end, if not death.”
“The lack of legitimate state institutions has left Cambodia more or less in the Hobbesian ‘state of nature’, and the politics of survival remains intense. Thus, I don’t expect Hun Sen and his CPP to go down without a fight to the death. For me, this is the great Cambodian tragedy.”
Hun Sen has never been investigated by the International Criminal Court for his complicity in the Khmer Rouge regime and does not intend to stand trial either for the politically-motivated murders alleged against him since he has been in power.
Japan has spent huge money for Cambodia since 1991 to help build democracy and national institution of this country. Now, it is critical time that Japan will never give up in paralleling their efforts with the West and America to renew such endeavours. Now, time is for HS to pick a dark road or a bright road. (Quote from a facebook page)
Kono urges Hun Sen to hold fair election
Op-Ed: NHK World Asia of Japan
Kono and Hun Sen met on Sunday in Phnom Penh.
International observers have expressed concern about the fairness of the election scheduled for July. The Cambodian government forced the largest opposition party to disband last year.
Kono said the election should properly reflect the will of the people. He quoted Hun Sen as saying that it will be free and fair.
Later on Sunday, Kono and Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn signed a document that says Japan will provide up to roughly 90 million dollars in yen-denominated loans to help build electric power facilities in Phnom Penh.
Kono told reporters that Japan is a longtime friend of Cambodia and doesn’t want to see the Southeast Asian country facing criticism.
He said Japan will keep monitoring the situation.
THE DUMPLING SHOP OWNER AT THE CENTER OF AN AUTHORITARIAN CRACKDOWN
BY JUSTIN HIGGINBOTTOM
The experiment in democracy that is modern Cambodia seems to have hit a bump in the road. Actually, if Cambodian democracy were a car, it would be in a rice-field ditch and the villagers (and international observers) smelling smoke. Twenty-five years after the United Nations Transitional Authority ended its stewardship of the country, and despite having a new constitution, years of relatively free elections and billions of dollars in foreign aid, residents are effectively living under single-party rule. The question on people’s minds is what comes next — a tow truck or an explosion.
One interested observer is Sin Rozeth. The 34-year-old former commune chief and once rising political star was given the same choice as other members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party: defect to another party (preferably the ruling Cambodian People’s Party) or get out of politics. Rozeth chose the latter — she opened a dumpling restaurant in her old stomping grounds after the CNRP was forcibly dissolved in November — while looking for a way forward in the face of Cambodia’s increasingly totalitarian environment.
Rozeth opened a restaurant to support her mother, and to make up for the loss of her meager public salary. But her accusers say it’s a front for illegal political activities. “If this restaurant is used as a place to gather fire, it is really dangerous for Rozeth and it should not be tolerated,” Chheang Vun, a ruling party lawmaker, posted on Facebook. In response to claims that she’s harboring “rebels,” Rozeth hung a banner outside: “Rozeth’s shop welcomes all guests, but not rebels.” The tongue-in-cheek gesture earned her a reprimand by the city governor, who warned that using such language could damage the kingdom’s reputation. Rozeth says she feels threatened by the ongoing harassment, and a group of former CNRP members sent letters to several international bodies, including the United Nations Human Rights Committee, seeking help in pressuring the government to stop the “bullying.”
In the short term, at least, one-party rule will continue in Cambodia, says Sophal Ear, professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College. And mounting new opposition will be difficult. ”It’s like razing an old grove forest,” he explains. “You’re not going to get 100-year-old trees. You’ll have young trees, and they’ll be easy to bulldoze if they get too strong.” National elections are scheduled for this summer, and it’s unclear whether CNRP’s former supporters will turn toward another party or abstain from voting, says Sinthay Neb, director of the Advocacy and Policy Institute in Phnom Penh. Whatever happens, he believes the best way forward is for both sides to meet and work together — however unlikely.
For now, Rozeth refuses to give up: “As long as one still has breath, there is still hope for democracy.” She stays busy traveling to villages to perform charity work (this too, she says, is closely monitored). And she helps people who come to her shop, even if it’s only for a good meal.
Before I leave the noodle shop — which has filled with the evening crowd — I take a few photographs of the owner. Other patrons notice and pull out their phones. Seems they all want a selfie with the politician turned restaurateur now under fire.
Can Cambodia’s fractured opposition survive?
In America, where many former CNRP officials now find themselves in exile, members of each clique have shared platforms and speaking engagements.
“Is the spirit of the CNRP still alive? Of course it’s still alive. The CNRM intends to be a placeholder for when the CNRP is reconstituted,” says Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party – North America (CNRP-NA), composed of chapters from different American states, was formed after the HRP and SRP merged in 2012. It was formerly the SRP-NA.
But, in 2014, a number of members and state chapters, supposedly those loyal to the HRP, broke away to create the CNRP-USA. Today, this group appears to have remained loyal to those who want to remain under the CNRP banner.
But Phan Prak, a representative of the CNRP-USA, says the organization “is not against the CNRM nor have we ever supported it. The CNRP-USA respects an individual to exercise their rights to join any organizations as they wish.”
While there are attempts by government-aligned media to portray divisions within the opposition as a sign of its feebleness, another interpretation is that internal disputes ought to be welcomed in any pro-democracy party or movement.
Indeed, a positive reading of current events is that voices ignored in the past are now being allowed to air their thoughts and grievances. Some political analysts think this is an opportunity for a younger generation of opposition figures to emerge.
“It is so important for the opposition party to have new blood in its leadership. Leaders in the opposition party should be the mentors for the new blood,” says Noan Sereiboth, a political blogger.
There are some indications that is happening. Kem Sokha’s eldest daughter, Kem Monovithya, 36, has been one of the most active and vocal figures, meeting with US senators last month and Japanese officials last week. She declined to comment for this article.
At the same time, analysts say there is the danger that if infighting continues there will only be one winner: Hun Sen. If fissures go unresolved then it would be the “nail in the coffin of the one formula that seemed to work: the creation of a unified opposition,” says academic Sophal Ear.
“When ‘color revolution’ requires 132 pages to explain and defend as the basis of anything, someone’s working overtime to turn it into an excuse or ploy to crack down on the opposition, NGOs, the media and government critics,” said Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “The metaphorical hammer is being used on their heads.”
There was also the matter of a June 2017 local level commune elections that had the potential to build electoral momentum for the CNRP ahead of the national polls. The CNRP gained a strong foothold in the countryside, winning 5,000 seats. However, those and national level seats won in 2013 were given to smaller parties after the CNRP’s dissolution.
Hun Manith saw the commune elections as a potential springboard for an opposition uprising. “As you might be aware, this kind of regime change took place near and after an election, and Cambodia will have a commune election in 2017. Is it a coincidence?” he said in the 2016 interview.
“In order to succeed in mobilizing the people for regime change, they need to create a negative perception about the government, for locals and also in the international arena. Once the perspective succeeds, all the means and tactics for regime change will be justified.”
The CPP’s propaganda apparatus, including most notably the pro-government Fresh News outlet, was later mobilized to convince a skeptical public and an even more skeptical international audience that its moves against the opposition were warranted.
The Phnom Penh Post reported in March that Fresh News released a 700-page collection of open letters, commentary and political analysis spinning Cambodia’s recent political crackdown into a successful prevention of a color revolution.
Former Phnom Penh Post News Editor Sebastian Strangio, also the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said Fresh News’ role was perhaps more important in shaping the news than it was in delivering it, saying “They don’t really do journalism.”
However, while the average Cambodian struggled to understand exactly what a color revolution was, Los Angeles-based academic and political analyst Sophal was under no illusions.
“The Cambodian people understand the term ‘color revolution’ insofar as it’s being used as a hammer swung on their friends’ heads, which is a whack-a-mole exercise that is more likely to result in their own heads being hit,” he told Asia Times.
“Some people are of course absorbing this and drinking the Kool Aid, but there’s also a sense that anything Fresh News and Khmer Times (newspaper) says is bad is actually good, and anything they say is good is actually bad.
“I never cease to be amazed at how smart Cambodians are at seeing through the fog. In a place where the Orwellian modus operandi that white is black and black is white prevails, Cambodians aren’t fooled for a second.”
While attempts to justify attacks on the CNRP continued and senior party members fled the country fearing arrest, the prime minister’s second son was promoted inside the military from Major General to Lieutenant General, recognition for his “good achievements”, including possibly his role in the successful suppression operation against the CNRP.
Op-Ed: Geneva Switzerland
Item 2 General Debate
37th Session of the Human Rights Council
Geneva, March 21, 2018
The international community has provided strong support for the development of democracy in Cambodia during the twenty-five years since the Constitution of Cambodia enshrined liberal multi-party democracy. Over the intervening decades, we have applauded the progress Cambodia had made since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991. Positive indictors included a relatively successful national election in 2013, and communal elections in 2017.
As we near the elections scheduled for 29 July this year, our previous optimism has been replaced by deep concern about the recent serious decline of civil and political rights in Cambodia. These backward steps include signs of escalating repression of the political opposition, civil society and media. We share the concerns highlighted by the High Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur about actions taken by the Cambodian government that will undermine the conduct of credible, free and fair elections in July. For the Cambodian Government to retain its legitimacy, any elections must be free, fair and credible.
International human rights treaties ratified by Cambodia and the Constitution of Cambodia guarantee, and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration affirms the rights of freedom of expression, freedom of association, and of citizens to participate in government through free, fair and credible elections that are periodic and transparent. However, we note with particular concern that in recent months:
- There has been a significant clampdown on the press and civil society across the country, including the closure or suspension of several NGOs and independent media companies;
- The Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha was detained on 3 September 2017, and since then has been deprived of his rights including access to his lawyers, and the right to defend himself through legal assistance of his own choosing.
- The court’s continued unwillingness to release Kem Sokha on bail during judicial proceedings is of concern especially in light of his deteriorating health.
- The CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court on 16 November, 118 CNRP members were banned from political activity for five years, and the CNRP’s local and national seats were reallocated to unelected members of the ruling and other parties.
We are particularly concerned about the conditions under which opposition leader Kem Sokha is being detained following his arbitrary arrest: he is reportedly in isolation, without adequate access to health care, subjected to intrusive observation, and other conditions, such as constant light. We call for the immediate release of all political prisoners, including Kem Sokha.
We urge Cambodia to:
- Reinstate the CNRP and all elected members to their national and communal seats, and to
- Repeal the amendments to the Law on Political Parties which provided for expansive grounds for the dissolution of political parties.
An electoral process from which the main democratic opposition party has been arbitrarily excluded cannot be considered genuine or legitimate.
We call on the Royal Government of Cambodia to take all measures necessary, before it is too late, to ensure that the 2018 elections are free, fair and credible. In particular, we urge that the elections take place in a peaceful environment without threats, arbitrary arrests or acts of intimidation, and that all international human rights obligations important for successful elections, such as rights to freedom of expression, press, association and peaceful assembly, are respected, protected and fulfilled.
Further, we urge the Royal Government of Cambodia to refrain from using judicial, administrative and fiscal measures as political tools against the opposition, the media, civil society and human rights defenders and to further revise: the Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO); the Law on Trade Unions; the Cambodian Criminal Code; and recent amendments to the Constitution. The political environment must be one in which opposition parties, civil society and media can function are able to carry out their legitimate roles without fear, threats or arbitrary restrictions.
We were heartened by the UN Special Rapporteur on Cambodia’s country visit that took place from 5-14 March. We strongly encourage the government of Cambodia to pay close attention to the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations from her recent visit. In this regard, we urge Cambodia to take all necessary measures to prevent and deter acts of intimidate and reprisals against those cooperating with the UN human rights mechanisms, including human rights defenders and other civil society actors. We stand ready to support the implementation of assistance that will strengthen Cambodia’s democratic systems.
We urge the continued attention of the international community to the current situation in Cambodia, and we will look to further consideration by the Human Rights Council if the human rights situation does not improve in the lead up to the elections in July. We encourage the High Commissioner for Human Rights to provide an update on the situation in Cambodia in an inter-sessional briefing ahead of the June session of the Human Rights Council.
As Cambodia continues along the path of development, we urge the government to fulfill human rights obligations and commitments, in furtherance of a genuine liberal multi-party democracy as envisaged in the Constitution of Cambodia for the benefit of all Cambodians.
Thank you Mr. President.
More report by Reuters