The Cambodian government is accused by opposition and rights groups of increasingly cracking down on dissent, prompting concerns about the state of human rights in the country. Abby Seiff reports from Phnom Penh.
Cambodia’s opposition party celebrated its fourth anniversary on Monday, July 18, with hundreds of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) members pouring in from the provinces to the capital Phnom Penh to mark the day – July 17, 2012 – the party was officially formed.
“I have evaluated that, over the last four years, we have walked on the right path. So I would like to plead with activists and CNRP leaders to keep moving forward until we reach our goal: ‘Positive Change,'” acting party president Kem Sokha wrote in a post on his Facebook page, accompanied by photos of cheering supporters.
Four years after the merger of the Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties, few could have predicted the situation the opposition faces today.
Sam Rainsy, the party president, has not stepped foot in Cambodia since November 2015, fearing arrest for what many believe to be politically motivated charges.
Although Rainsy continues to play an active role in party life, joining meetings and rallies via Skype, deputy party president Kem Sokha has served as acting leader since Rainsy’s departure.
But Sokha, too, has become a target of the government. For nearly two months, he has been holed up in party headquarters, fearing arrest.
Politically motivated cases?
Starting in late February, recordings began to leak out of Sokha speaking to an unknown woman about deeply intimate affairs. First published on a pair of suspect Facebook pages, the recordings became the centerpiece of a bizarre and complex net with which to snare a host of government critics.
The anti-terrorism unit opened investigations, as did the anti-corruption unit. The woman, Khom Chandaraty, initially denied any involvement only to later provide detailed testimony about their alleged affair.
On May 26, police surrounded Sokha’s car and office, ostensibly to arrest the party leader – though they had no warrant and Sokha retains his parliamentary immunity. They backed off and never returned, but Sokha has sought refuge in his office, effectively placing himself under house arrest. While the case progresses, the court on Friday, July 15, ordered that Sokha remain in the country.
“The opposition is under attack and many of the legal cases against them seem to be politically motivated. For once, it appears they are challenging for power through election and it looks possible,” said political analyst Ou Virak, a longtime human rights worker and founder of the policy think tank Future Forum.
The party leader is hardly the only one to get caught in this web. Two CNRP lawmakers have been named suspects for their role in procurement of prostitution and it is expected they will be stripped of their parliamentary immunity.
After providing legal assistance to Chandaraty, Adhoc, a prominent and well-respected local rights group saw four of its employees arrested on charges of bribing a witness and being an accomplice to bribery.
A United Nations employee was also charged, as was Ny Chakrya, a longtime human rights defender who in January was appointed to the National Election Commission as one of its few independent members.
Political scientist Sophal Ear, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, says the crackdowns were evidence of demonstrable fear among the government. “[They fear] losing control; losing power,” he wrote in an email. “When you have hundreds of millions of dollars and your hands in everything, you’d be afraid too. Desperate people do desperate things.”
The protracted attacks on the opposition come as the country’s rights record is worsening.
Prime Minister Hun Sen is now the sixth-longest serving political leader in the world, having governed the country for over three decades. While Sen, who has reportedly vowed to continue to rule Cambodia until he is 74, is credited with transforming the country into one of the region’s fastest-growing economies, the 62-year-old premier is also regularly criticized for ignoring human rights and stamping out dissent.
“Since May 2015, the Cambodian government’s assault on its critics has intensified, the number of political prisoners held in Cambodia’s prisons has risen sharply as the authorities have made increasing use of the criminal justice system to persecute dissenters,” local rights group Licadho noted in a recent report on political prisoners.
According to Licadho’s figures, there were 26 political prisoners as of July.
Although Cambodia’s biggest donors have stopped short of sanctions, they have offered harsh rebukes to the Southeast Asian nation’s deteriorating human rights situation.
In a resolution passed last week, the US House of Representatives urged Prime Minister Hun Sen to “end all harassment and intimidation of Cambodia’s opposition [and] drop all politically motivated charges against opposition lawmakers.”
“[Congress] condemns all forms of political violence in Cambodia and urges the cessation of ongoing human rights violations,” the resolution noted.
The German ambassador, who has been one of the more outspoken diplomats in the country, told the Cambodia Daily last week that there was little doubt in his mind the ruling party would do whatever it would take to remain in power.
“What I see is a firm determination of the CPP to stay in power. I have heard it said: ‘We owe it to the country to stop the CNRP because it divides the nation,'” Ambassador Joachim Baron von Marschall, who is departing, said in the interview.
The situation has only gained urgency over the past week. On July 10, political commentator Kem Ley was gunned down in broad daylight. Ley was an outspoken critic and founder of the fledgling Grassroots Democracy Party, and many believe his murder was politically motivated.
Immediately after Ley’s killing, a suspect was apprehended. The man – a poor migrant worker – claimed that he killed Kem Ley because he did not pay back a $3,000 loan. Few here are buying that explanation. But while activists and analysts argue that the government is behind the murder, the ruling party, in turn, appears to be primed to pin it on the opposition.
In a speech broadcast last Monday, Hun Sen implied that only the opposition “benefited” from a crime that made the government look bad. As the week wore on, some ruling party-friendly media outlets and individuals furthered the case. Some wonder if these mentions are a signal that someone within the opposition will be tied to the crime.
Regardless of who may be dragged in, the assassination “will certainly have a chilling effect in the short term,” said Virak.
“It’s a script that must be followed,” echoed Sophal, who is also an associate professor at Occidental College in California. “Kill the chicken, scare the monkey, the Chinese say.”
Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha.