Despite a widening crackdown on dissent by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) persists, and with it the country’s abiding hope for democracy. For nearly three years, the CPP has been carrying out an aggressive, systematic campaign to wipe out all political opposition and cling to rule over Cambodia. The CPP has targeted not only members and supporters of the CNRP, but also human rights and democracy activists, leaving the future of Cambodian politics highly uncertain.
The CPP, led by current Prime Minister Hun Sen, has been in power for four decades. In the 2013 general election, the then-new CNRP nearly ousted the CPP from power. The historic near-victory led to months of mass protests demanding that the long-standing CPP step down. Once the protests stopped, the country experienced a period of relative calm until 2017, when commune elections revealed that the CNRP had the support to succeed in the 2018 general election. In an effort to avoid the threat posed by the CNRP in 2013, the CPP began their campaign to eliminate opposition, which continues to this day.
On September 3rd, 2017, the CPP arrested CNRP president Kem Sokha. Sokha was accused of collaborating with the United States (US) to overthrow the CPP and subsequently charged with treason, according to Al Jazeera. A number of human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have condemned the arrest as “bogus.” Cambodia expert Katrin Travouillon stated that “the charges against Sokha … [have] been rejected as baseless by pretty much anyone outside of the Cambodian government.” In November 2017, the CPP forcibly dissolved the CNRP, and has since targeted, jailed, and exiled many members and supporters of the party. Over the last few years in Cambodia, desperate cries for a better democracy have become commonplace.
The state of Cambodia’s economy has proven detrimental to its political stability. With China overtaking the European Union (EU) as Cambodia’s primary source of aid and investment, economic leverage from Western states on democracy and human rights issues has become increasingly weak. In February, the EU partially suspended Cambodia’s preferential trade benefits but failed to compel the CPP to release Sokha and end the crackdown, writes Al Jazeera. Moreover, according to Professor Sophal Ear of Occidental College, China’s support, alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, is doing “immeasurable” harm to the Cambodian economy, contributing to the country’s growing sense of desperation.
From mid-2020 on, the CPP’s crackdown has come to target not only CNRP members, but also human rights and democracy activists. Kem Monovithya, daughter of Sokha, said the CPP has adopted blanket repression to stop “a spark from becoming fire” because “they can’t handle competition in free and fair elections.”
In late July, the number of arrests spiked following the seizure of well-known human rights activist Rong Chhun, who was accused by the CPP of spreading “fake news,” according to Al Jazeera. In response to the rise in arrests, Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch stated that “the government … is trying to intimidate the remaining CNRP members into silence.”
As of late September, more than 140 CNRP activists have been arrested. Among them is former CNRP member Kong Sam An, who was sentenced alongside five others to seven years in prison for allegedly plotting to overthrow the CPP. Mere minutes after the sentence, a video was released online of Kong’s daughter Mouyly outside a provincial court pleading: “My father is not guilty. Please, NGOs, help us.”
Altogether, the CPP has made clear its objective to eradicate the CNRP. CPP spokesman Sok Eysan stated that “there [has been] no future for [the] CNRP since November 16, 2017. CNRP’s supporters, if they continue to support the party, continue to stay in jail.”
The bleak reality that Cambodia has been effectively transformed into a one-party state casts doubt on the future of the CNRP — and of democracy and human rights — in the country. Yet hope still shines through. Professor Ear of Occidental College holds that “the CNRP, whether it is there or not, still holds an idea that cannot be extinguished. As long as one person still believes in the idea that the Cambodian government cannot simply run roughshod of human rights, democracy, and freedom, there is hope.”
This hope will be what guides Cambodia’s upcoming pursuit for democracy and human rights. All those who have remained hopeful must organize peaceful protests against the CPP. In doing so, they must demand not only that all of the arrested activists and CNRP members be freed, but also that the next general election is monitored by international organizations widely considered legitimate purveyors of democratic norms. The greater the number of protestors, the more difficult it will be for the CNRP to repress the resistance, and the more likely that the international community will confer legitimacy upon the transition to ensure long-lasting peace.
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