Cambodia: a democracy no longer, descends into autocratic rule

Cambodia: a democracy no longer, descends into autocratic rule

The steady erosion of democracy in Cambodia has been dramatically accelerated during 2017, writes Carlyle A. Thayer

One of the world’s longest serving leaders, Hun Sen, Cambodia’s Prime Minister, has since 2016 set about deliberately dismantling his country’s democratic system. Month by month, the country’s political opposition has been eviscerated through a combination of coercion and legitimising legal means, known as ‘lawfare’.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer rouge commander, has now been in charge in Cambodia for 32 years.

Degradation of the democratic process has been dramatically accelerated during 2017. If this continues, the national elections scheduled for July 2018 effectively will be a one-party affair.

Cambodia today is an illiberal democracy rapidly descending into autocratic rule.

In 1991, after Cambodia had spent three years under the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge and ten years under Vietnamese military occupation, the United Nations was mandated to carry out peace-building. It was the largest such mission of its time.

Liberal multi-party democracy was enshrined in the constitution

In May 1993, Cambodia held national elections for a Constituent Assembly. Four months later it promulgated a constitution that restored the monarch, Norodom Sihanouk, and re-established the Kingdom of Cambodia. His successor, Norodom Sihanomi, has for many years spent much of his time abroad.

Cambodia’s current constitution was amended in 2004. Five references to liberal multi-party democracy are enshrined within it, including the words in the preamble that assert that Cambodia will ‘become once again an “Oasis of Peace” based on the system of a liberal multi-party democracy’.

Article 1 states that ‘the King shall fulfill His functions according to the Constitution and the principles of liberal multi-party democracy’, while Article 50 declares ‘Khmer citizens of both sexes shall respect the principles of national sovereignty and liberal multi-party democracy’.

Article 51 specifies that ‘the Kingdom of Cambodia adopts a policy of liberal multi-party democracy’ and Article 153 affirms that ‘the revision or the amendment of the Constitution cannot be done, if affecting the liberal multi-party democracy system and the constitutional monarchy regime’.

One-party regime since late 1990s

National elections have been held at regular five-yearly intervals in Cambodia since 1993. In 1998, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party gained majority control and it has won every election since then.

Since the setback to his control in 2013, Hun Sen has set about systematically destabilising the opposition

Two opposition parties, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, merged to form the Cambodian National Rescue Party in 2012. In the national elections the following year, the CPP suffered a major setback when it lost 22 parliamentary seats—although it still retained control.

The opposition charged that the election was rigged and Cambodia experienced a period of domestic turmoil as mass protests erupted.

Since the setback to his control in 2013, Hun Sen has set about systematically destabilizing the opposition. His efforts intensified as commune elections scheduled for 4 June 2017 approached. These elections were widely viewed as a bell weather for national elections scheduled for July 2018.

The leader of the CNRP, Sam Rainsy, was forced to flee abroad and in December 2016 he was convicted of ‘falsifying public documents, using fake public documents (and) incitement causing unrest to national security’ in absentia. His successor, Kem Sokha, was forced to step down as party leader while other CNRP members were jailed for ‘inciting social instability’.

US Navy unit engaged in humanitarian construction of school toilets and maternity wards ordered to leave the country

In January this year, Hun Sen cancelled military exercises with the United States for a period of two years. This was on the grounds that the Cambodian military was needed to provide security for the elections and to assist in an anti-drug campaign. Later, he abruptly ordered a US Navy unit engaged in humanitarian construction of school toilets and maternity wards to leave the country.

International organisations expelled

In February 2017, Hun Sen countered the opposition by amending the Law on Political Parties so that the CNRP could be dissolved for ‘jeopardizing the security of the state’ and ‘provoking incitement’.

A Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations was also passed. It required the 5,000 domestic and foreign NGOS working in Cambodia to register with the government and provide detailed reports on their activities and finances. If they failed to comply, they risked fines, criminal prosecutions or deregistration.

Cambodian people continue to support the opposition at the ballot box

On 11 April, the Cambodian government released an eleven-page report, To Tell the Truth. It accuses Western governments, UN agencies and NGOs of conducting a deliberate campaign of disinformation to denigrate the CPP.

The report also accused the United States and the opposition CNRP of colluding to overthrow the Cambodian government.

However, the Cambodian people continue to support the opposition at the ballot box.

Despite the efforts by Hun Sen and his CPP to hound and destabilize the opposition, the opposition performed well in the June 2017 commune elections. The CPP received 51 per cent of the vote to the CNRP’s 44 per cent. The CPP lost 436 commune chief seats while the CNRP gained 449 out of a total of 1,646 commune chief seats.

The CPP lost 1,779 commune councillor seats while the CNRP gained 2,052 out of a total of 11,572 councillor seats.

Systematic political repression

After the commune elections, Hun Sen and the CPP blamed their poor showing on outside interference by the US National Democratic Institution and Khmer language broadcasts by Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

The NDI was ordered to leave Cambodia and the 53 local radio stations that rebroadcast news from VOA and RFA were shut down.

The Cambodian Daily was closed on allegation of tax fraud.

In September, the leader of the opposition Kem Sokha, founder and former leader of the Human Rights Party, was charged with treason.

Hun Sen is an autocrat who is clinging to power. To ensure that he remains at the helm he has resorted to subversion of the national constitution. In the process, he is transforming Cambodia’s liberal multi-party democracy into a dictatorship, a democracy in name only.

Featured image: Marcel Crozet / ILO on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, has been a regular visitor to Cambodia since 1981, and in May 1993 was a UN-accredited electoral observer in Kampong Cham province.

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