A Cambodian court has issued arrest warrants for top political opposition leaders living abroad as they prepare to return to the country. Included are warrants for Sam Rainsy, the founder of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), who is accused of incitement to commit a felony and plotting to commit treason, as well as for other top CNRP leaders, including party vice presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang, and five others.
These warrants come in the wake of the widespread political repression of the Hun Sen government. In the 2013 general elections, the CNRP was the main opposition party to the country’s dominant Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), with the CNRP winning a substantial 44% of the total number of votes. Five years later, in July 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest-serving leaders and formerly of the autocratic Khmer Rouge regime responsible for the Cambodian genocide, won a landslide election victory following months of a brutal crackdown, which resulted in the systematic destruction of political opposition and the forced repression of independent media and civil society. The run-up to the 2018 election saw the dissolution of the CNRP, with co-founder and then-president Kem Sokha arrested for treason and many CNRP members fleeing the country after being charged with conspiring with foreign countries to overthrow the government, despite virtually no supporting evidence. In early 2019, exiled members of the banned CNRP stated their plans to return to Cambodia.
While Sochua has asserted that “[t]he plan [to return] is not being taken off the shelf,” Kem Sokha recently remarked to Al Jazeera that “‘Hun Sen is taking Cambodia to a really dark place.’” According to Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch in an email to Al Jazeera, “‘PM Hun Sen is trying to slam the door on these leading members of the CNRP ever being able to return to Cambodia.’” Adding on to this, Robertson stated that “‘Hun Sen is showing he’s solely interested in maintaining power at any cost,’” even if this leads to economic decline and repudiation of trade partners such as the EU, which has condemned Cambodia. More generally, human rights groups and foreign countries have condemned the current regime’s broad political repression. In 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen “destroyed any semblance of democratic rule in Cambodia,” said Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch, using “a crackdown on rights and a bogus election to tighten his grip on power and solidify one-party rule,” as stated in Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2019. According to the organization, repression has tightened since the sham election. Meanwhile, in February of this year, the EU started a process that could suspend Cambodia’s duty-free trade access under the EU’s Everything but Arms (EBA) initiative. The EU is also preparing to send a fact-finding team to the country to assess human rights conditions. The U.S is considering revoking a trade agreement with Cambodia, and in June 2018, the US, through the Global Magnitsky Act, pressed for human rights improvements by sanctioning individuals based on human rights grounds. Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a political scientist at Lund University, stated to Al Jazeera that all the politicians for whom arrest warrants have been issued will likely face arrest upon return to the country, though there is no expectation that their return will prompt significant protests. According to Noren-Nilsson, “the opposition leaders’ initial plan to return should be seen as an attempt to take advantage of the increased scrutiny on the Cambodian government during the EBA withdrawal process.” On the other hand, CNRP leader Sochua stated to Al Jazeera that Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to offer concessions to the EU by releasing political prisoners and offering pardons.
As stated in reactions to the issuance of these warrants, these warrants represent a continuation of the political repression of Hun Sen’s regime and extend Hun Sen’s long rule of the country. With power over the country’s legislature and judiciary, Hun Sen has been able to centralize power into his own hands—suppression of the political opposition further allows him to misuse Cambodia’s institutions for his own gain, perpetuating repression of and violence against the independent media, human rights defenders, trade union leaders, and others with dissenting views. Political repression has been tied to economic inequality, with those close to Hun Sen enjoying impunity and the opportunity to steal state assets. Meanwhile, citizens continue to live under a corrupt and inefficient government that is unable to provide adequate social services.
The 1991 Paris Peace Agreements marking the end of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War aimed to end the “tragic conflict and continuing bloodshed in Cambodia.” The accords aimed to prepare the country for free and fair elections, with the UN’s mission in the country to foster “an environment in which respect for human rights shall be ensured.” Hun Sen’s regime has not committed itself to ensuring free and fair elections; it has not committed itself to ensuring respect for human rights. It has done the opposite, in rejection of the spirit of the Agreements, with a turn toward the country’s violent past under the Khmer Rouge. The international community must recognize that political instability in Cambodia has ramifications for other countries within the region. The international community must send a unified signal to Cambodia that the actions of Hun Sen’s regime cannot be tolerated. Some members of the international community have taken and are taking action, most notably the EU; yet, others are ignoring Cambodia’s major repression and human rights abuses, most notably China, which has continued to offer the country support and investment. Hun Sen’s regime must be forced to make substantive concessions—it cannot be given a way to continue abusing its citizens. Countries such as the US could take concrete steps to institute financial and economic measures against Hun Sen. Members of the international community can work through the United Nations to place pressure on Hun Sen and signal to his regime that human rights abuses will not be tolerated. For instance, the United Nations could place Hun Sen under increased scrutiny with another evaluation of the country’s human rights record or support for the EU’s fact-finding mission. Hun Sen needs to be held accountable, in accordance with international law and in line with the spirit of the Accords that helped form the foundation of Cambodia’s democracy.