Sunday, February 10th, 2019
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Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen cemented his grip on power with lopsided general elections that came after authorities dissolved the main opposition party and shuttered independent media outlets. The military and police openly campaigned for the ruling party, which won all the seats in the legislature.
KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN 2018:
- The CPP won every seat in the lower house, the National Assembly, in July elections. The polls were held amid a period of repression that began in earnest in 2017, and saw the banning of the main opposition party, opposition leaders jailed or forced into exile, and remaining major independent media outlets reined in or closed. The CPP also dominated elections for the upper house, or Senate, held in February, taking every elected seat.
- The Phnom Penh Post, regarded by many observers as the last remaining independent media outlet in Cambodia, was taken over by a Malaysian businessman with links to Hun Sen.
- A Cambodian court sentenced an Australian filmmaker to six years in jail on charges of espionage. He had been arrested after denouncing rights abuses and filming political rallies.
- In November, the UN-assisted court known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal found Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, two surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. The verdict for the first time legally defined the Khmer Rouge’s crimes as genocide.
Cambodia’s political system has been dominated by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for more than three decades. The country has conducted semicompetitive elections in the past, but the 2018 polls were held in a severely repressive environment that offered voters no meaningful choice. The main opposition party was banned, opposition leaders were in jail or exiled, and independent media and civil society outlets were curtailed. The CPP won every seat in the lower house for the first time since the end of the Cambodian Civil War, as well as every elected seat in the upper house in indirect elections held earlier in the year. Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 6 / 40 (–4)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 1 / 12 (–3)
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4 (–1)
King Norodom Sihamoni is chief of state, but has little political power. The prime minister is head of government, and is appointed by the monarch from among the majority coalition or party in parliament following legislative elections. Hun Sen first became prime minister in 1985. He was nominated most recently after 2018 National Assembly polls, which offered voters no meaningful choice. Most international observation groups were not present due to the highly restrictive nature of the contest.
Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 because the incumbent prime minister was unanimously confirmed for another term after parliamentary elections that offered voters no meaningful choice.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4 (–1)
The bicameral parliament consists of the 62-seat Senate and the 125-seat National Assembly. Members of parliament and local councilors indirectly elect 58 senators, and the king and National Assembly each appoint 2. Senators serve six-year terms, while National Assembly members are directly elected to five-year terms.
In 2018, the CPP won every seat in both chambers in elections that were considered neither free nor fair by established international observers, which declined to monitor them. In the months before the polls, the Supreme Court had banned the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and jailed many of its members, and closed media outlets and intimidated journalists to the extent that there was almost no independent reporting on the campaign or the polls. Several small, obscure new “opposition parties” ran candidates in the lower house elections, though many of the parties were widely believed to have been manufactured to suggest multiparty competition. Following calls for an election boycott by former CNRP leaders, Hun Sen repeatedly warned that people who did not vote in the election could be punished. The election was condemned by many democracies. The United States responded by imposing targeted sanctions on Cambodian leaders, while the EU threatened to roll back a preferential trade agreement.
Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 because the parliamentary elections took place in a highly repressive environment that offered voters no meaningful choice, and produced a one-party legislature.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1 / 4 (–1)
In 2015, Cambodia passed two new election laws that permit security forces to take part in campaigns, punish parties that boycott parliament, and mandate a shorter campaign period of 21 days. The laws have been broadly enforced.
Voting is tied to a citizen’s permanent resident status in a village, township, or urban district, and this status cannot be changed easily. In 2017, an amendment to the electoral law banned political parties from association with anyone convicted of a criminal offense.
The National Election Committee (NEC) was reformed in 2013, but the CPP has since asserted complete control over its nine seats. Criminal charges were brought against the body’s one independent member in 2016, who was then jailed and removed from the body. The four NEC members affiliated with the CNRP resigned following the party’s 2017 dissolution. In 2018, the NEC sought to aid the CPP’s campaign by threatening to prosecute any figures that urged an election boycott, and informing voters via text message that criticism of the CPP was prohibited.
US, China Face Off Over Legacy in Cambodia
“China supported the Khmer Rouge during the 1970-1975 war and was the sole critical supporter throughout the 1975-1979 Democratic Kampuchea period of genocide. With Chinese money and support, Pol Pot carried out the period of murder, starvation and brutality.” – Said Elizabeth Becker
ចិនគាំទ្រខ្មែរក្រហមក្នុងកំឡុងសង្គ្រាមឆ្នាំ១៩៧០-១៩៧៥ ហើយជាអ្នកគាំទ្រសំខាន់តែមួយគត់ក្នុងរវាងឆ្នាំ១៩៧៥-១៩៧៩នៃរបបប្រលៃពូជសាសន៌កម្ពុជាប្រជាធិបតេយ្យ។ ជាមួយថវិការនិងការគាំទ្ររបស់ចិន ប៉ុល-ពតប្រតិបត្តិការវាលពិឃាត ទុរភិកអត់ឃ្លាន និងឃោរឃៅព្រៃផ្សៃ។ – ដោយអេលីសាបុិត បែកខើរ
Op-Ed: VOA Khmer
February 09, 2019 10:40 PM
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA —
Sihanouk took refuge in Beijing until 1975, when brutal Khmer Rouge guerrillas leading a resistance movement against Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic captured Phnom Penh on April 17 and took over the country.
Sihanouk initially supported the Khmer Rouge regime and was installed as head of state by the communists but resigned in 1976. He spent the rest of the regime as a de facto prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, which wreaked havoc on the country, killing or starving to death an estimated 1.7 million people from 1975 to 1979.
Echoes of the Cold War
Today, that sequence of events reverberates in a diplomatic face-off in Phnom Penh that echoes the Cold War even as it has gone viral in Cambodia. The online skirmish began when the U.S. Embassy posted a statement on its Facebook page, Jan. 30, saying the Khmer Rouge “ignorantly depended on a superpower,” an apparent reference to China. The embassy later issued comments claiming Washington was not involved in the coup led by Lon Nol that ousted Sihanouk.
“Instead, there is a lot of evidence showing that [the] Chinese government actively supported [the] Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 and after that,” read a post by the U.S. Embassy.
In response, the Chinese Embassy posted a statement on its Facebook page, Feb. 1, mocking the idea that the coup “was not related to the U.S., but the CIA.”
Elizabeth Becker, author of When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution, said the current tit-for-tat was “a distorted argument started by the Hun Sen government.”
“The subject is too serious for these propaganda potshots,” she wrote VOA Khmer in an email. “Both China and the U.S. have blood on their hands.”
War of words
Chheang Vannarith, president of the Asian Vision Institute (AVI), an independent think tank based in Phnom Penh, said the current war of words is another indication that the U.S.-China competition in Cambodia will continue to intensify.
“I think Cambodia has become the proxy of U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry,” he said in an email. “The winner writes history. It is … real politics.”
Meas Nee, a political analyst who holds a doctorate in sociology and international social work from La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, said Cambodia should be cautious of falling into a trap if a new Cold War emerges.
“Those two superpowers can take advantage” of a vulnerable country like Cambodia, he said, adding that Phnom Penh’s closeness with Beijing makes it unlikely to take a stand. China is Cambodia’s largest aid donor.
Although many consider the U.S. involvement to be a matter of historical record, Emily Zeeberg, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, told VOA Khmer that there was “no evidence that the United States was involved in the coup that brought Lon Nol to power.”
“The United States has addressed its war legacy by long-standing and substantial efforts for humanitarian demining and removing unexploded ordnance (UXO), including the removal of hundreds of thousands of Chinese-made mines, which have injured and killed people for decades,” she said in an email.
“We hope the Chinese government will acknowledge its legacy in Cambodia and make amends to all the Cambodians its policies affected,” Zeeberg added.
Repeated efforts to reach the Chinese Embassy in Cambodia were unsuccessful.
Phay Siphan, a Cambodian government spokesman, could not be reached for comment.
Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defense said in a statement issued last week that Cambodia had suffered from a civil war that arose from “a coup supported by United States in 1970.”
“Cambodia doesn’t want to see the same history, as Cambodia has full peace,” it read.
‘Supporting the Khmer Rouge’
Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles, said: “It looks like the U.S. Embassy simply reminded Cambodia of who was supporting the Khmer Rouge at their height of power-1975-1979.”
“Indeed, with the withdrawal of the U.S., the Khmer Republic collapsed,” he added.