Cambodia Political Repression Deepens
Mass convictions, farcical commune elections highlight continuing democratic backslide
By: Mark Tilly
Cambodia’s political situation has continued to deteriorate, with its courts last week sentencing more of the government’s political opponents to prison terms on what critics and human rights activists termed baseless charges as Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party continued their democratic charade by holding local commune elections earlier this month.
On June 14, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted at least 51 opposition politicians affiliated with the now-dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party on politically motivated charges of “plotting” and "incitement to commit a felony under articles 453, 494, and 495 of the Criminal Code. Among those arrested and hurriedly convicted was the Cambodian American democracy activist Theary Seng (pictured above) who was detained on June 14 and sentenced just three days later.
Some 31 of the defendants were sentenced to five to eight years, another 20 were handed five-year suspended sentences, while 27 were sentenced in absentia as they are living in exile. Those absent were forced to flee when the country’s court system, stacked with ruling-party appointees, dissolved the CNRP in 2017 after the party received a strong turnout in local commune polls. Since then, the government has rounded up CNRP affiliates who remained in the country, with last week’s show trial being the third of four mass sentences in which some 150 defendants face almost certain imprisonment.
The convictions were related to opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s failed attempt to return from exile to Cambodia in 2019, which the defendants were accused of organizing.
Human rights and democracy advocacy groups have been scathing of the government’s punitive actions, as the ruling party seems determined to shatter almost any and all hope of the country restoring any of the fleeting democratic norms that were in place in years past.
“This is just the latest example of the way the law is being weaponized to attack free expression, silence dissenting voices, and shutter civic space in Cambodia,” said Kingsley Abbott, a director with the International Commission of Jurists. “Those who have been convicted on these unsubstantiated charges should have their convictions overturned, and anyone detained as a result should be released immediately.”
The ICJ noted the articles in Cambodia’s Criminal Code that the defendants were charged with are loosely worded, vague, prescribe disproportionately harsh criminal sanctions on free expressions, and are often wielded arbitrarily to target the government’s political opponents. It went on to raise concerns about the “fundamentally unsound evidentiary basis on which the convictions were made.”
“Foreign governments, the United Nations, and donors should press the government to quash these convictions and end its broad attack on Cambodia’s remaining civic and democratic space,” said Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia director Phil Robertson. “The mass trials against political opposition members are really about preventing any electoral challenge to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s rule, but they have also come to symbolize the death of Cambodia’s democracy.”
Despite the CPP accelerating the country’s descent into a one-party state, the country continued to hold its local commune elections – the equivalent of local government - earlier this month on June 5.
Including the CPP, 17 political parties ran in the polls. However only one, The Candlelight Party could be truly described as an opposition party, with the rest either affiliated with the CPP or unable to mount a credible campaign.
In the end, the CPP took 73 percent of the vote, winning 5.3 million votes, while the Candlelight Party won 1.6 million or 22 percent, according to the country’s National Election Committee. The royalist-related Funcipec party, which in previous elections had been deemed to be a legitimate third contender, won just 1 percent of the vote.
Despite the relatively strong performance by the Candlelight Party, thanks to CPP gerrymandering tactics, the vote it received translates to just 4 of its candidates becoming commune chiefs.
Local human rights groups noted that the lead-up to the local elections was marked with accusations of harassment and irregularities, none of which at this point has been considered to be surprising.
“What we saw was a mixture of intimidation and exhortation, in which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party pressured people to vote for them while also providing the alluring vision of economic prosperity if they kept their head down and pulled the lever for the CPP,” Robertson said.
The elections results were in stark contrast to the 2017 commune elections, where the now-dissolved CNRP took out some 43 percent of the vote.
Now, however, the CPP dominated, even in areas that were considered to be CNRP strongholds.
Robertson noted the crucial role commune chiefs play in Cambodians’ day-to-day lives, such as authorizing government IDs, highlighting the difficulties the CPP could impose on locals who voted for an opposition candidate.
“The reality is no one wants to cross those local officials, especially if they are not confident that Candlelight Party will win,” he said.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights executive director Sopheap Chak said this was used as an intimidation tactic by the CPP, reporting incidents where candidates withdrew from running in the election after being threatened with not being issued ID cards or other documents if they chose to run.
“These incidents are not surprising as similar tactics were used by the ruling party in the past to secure its victory in elections,” she told Asia Sentinel. “Allowing elections to take place and several parties to run in those elections is far from sufficient for the country to be considered a multi-party democracy both in the eyes of civil society and the international community.”
Cambodian national Sophal Ear, a global development associate professor at the Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, told Asia Sentinel the government’s tactics during the election would likely continue to erode its standing with the international community.
“Its manhandling of the opposition will give the international community the perception of a one-horse race,” he said. “Democracy turned into managed democracy, and has now devolved into managed autocracy. Cambodia is not a multi-party democracy when 18 percent of the popular vote results in four Commune Chiefs... ridiculous.”
Robertson highlighted that the election was essentially ignored by the international community, with no real election observers showing up.
“Cambodia’s so-called democracy is a joke,” he said. “The sentencing of opposition activists shows the face of the real Cambodia, where people defy PM Hun Sen at their own peril.”