On Monday, Sovann Chhay, a 16-year old Cambodian teen, was sentenced to eight months in prison following posts on social media that criticized the current government. Chhay is the son of a detained political opposition activist and is reported to be on the autism spectrum. The court originally sentenced Chhay to 8 months in prison, but the teen will only serve 4 months of the sentence. Following his release, Chhay will be placed on a two-year probationary period, in which he will “be required to appear before the court whenever summoned; inform the court if he changes address; and obtain permission to leave the country, among other conditions,” per local rights group Licadho.
In reaction to his sentencing, the United States and various human rights groups have condemned the decision of the Cambodian courts. Patrick Murphy, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, tweeted, “I am saddened to hear the Phnom Penh Municipal Court today sentenced a child to prison time for what appears to be politically motivated charges. How does jailing the teenage son of an opposition figure demonstrate respect for human rights?” Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, is quoted in Reuters as saying, “The conviction against 16-year-old, autistic Sovann Chhay is outrageous and unacceptable on so many levels and signifies a new low in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s witch hunt against his political opponents.” Plang Sophal, deputy prosecutor and spokesman at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, declined to comment on the case.
Reuters has reflected that “the sentencing comes amid a broad crackdown in Cambodia on the opposition, civil society, and the media that began in the run-up to a 2018 election.” The ruling party of Cambodia, the Cambodian People’s Party, won 100% of the seats in that Parliamentary election, despite the availability of 20 different parties on the electoral ballot. The CPP used several scare tactics to persuade voters to support the party. The Party has also killed and arrested many of political opposition leaders, including Kem Ley. In 2016, Kem Ley, a prominent opposition figure, was shot dead in broad daylight. The killing has been alleged by Human Rights Watch as politically motivated, despite government claims that the killing was over a debt dispute. Kem Sokha, leader of the opposition party Cambodian National Rescue Party, was arrested in 2017 for treason, with the CPP dissolving the CNRP shortly after. The political crackdown has also involved attacks on the press, with the Cambodian Daily newspaper being shut down by the government over a “tax dispute”, per CNN.
After the brutal Khmer Rouge and two decades of civil war, Cambodia held its first elections in 1993. The CPP and its leader, Sun Hen, have held power since then and initially gained international support and legitimacy by winning electoral seats in elections deemed fair and free by the international community. However, in 2013, the CPP narrowly kept its majoritarian rule in parliament by winning 68 of 123 seats. Almost losing the majority is seen as the catalyst for the brutal silencing of opposition parties and press that occurred in the build-up to the 2018 election. Many international groups meant to act as a watchdog for democratic fairness have been banned by the CPP, and members of opposition parties have been placed in exile outside the country.
Despite the international condemnation of the CPP’s actions, some Cambodians are in support of the CPP. Supporters of the CPP have commended the party for keeping the country together after the violent turmoil of the Khmer Rouge and civil war. The part was praised for developing infrastructure and growing the country’s economy. The head monk at Baray Pagoda, Venerable Sareun, is quoted in CNN as saying, “The CPP helped us rebuild after the war…They are keeping the peace in the country and they are developing Cambodia with new roads and buildings.”
While the economy of Cambodia has been raised over the last two decades, critics reflect that the wealth has not been distributed evenly. This inequity has led to the creation of a crony-capitalist system where members of the ruling party control all the industry and exploit the country for its natural resources. Critics of the CPP also report difficulties in obtaining basic documentation from the government for having ties to opposition ideas or parties. The recent arrest of Sovann Chhay shows that the government crackdown on free speech and democratization shows no signs of slowing. In addition, Cambodians cannot protest discontent against the government, as the CPP repeatedly holds large military parades, showing their coercive power. It remains to be seen how the political situation will develop in Cambodia, but signs for democracy are becoming evermore idealistic.
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