Cambodia’s Supreme Court yesterday ruled to dissolve the main opposition party, ending the only existing electoral threat to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s grip on power in the kingdom.
The historic ruling sees the Cambodia National Rescue Party disbanded and also bans 118 of the party’s senior officials from politics for five years – including party president Kem Sokha and exiled former leader Sam Rainsy.
The dissolution comes after a sustained campaign mounted by the government and led by Prime Minister Hun Sen claiming that the CNRP had engaged in a “colour revolution”, with the assistance of the United States.
Under new amendments to election laws, the CNRP will lose all 489 of its commune chiefs and all 55 of its seats in the National Assembly.
Hun Sen has led a crackdown on the opposition and other institutions of democracy since the CNRP made big gains in the 2013 general elections and again in local elections earlier this year.
In recent months, the government has forced the closure of the Cambodia Daily, independent local radio stations, and FM stations that re-broadcast Radio Free Asia and Voice of America’s Khmer language service. At least 20 of the approximately 36 opposition and civil society activists arbitrarily arrested since May 2015 remain imprisoned.
The strongman leader had confidently predicted the outcome of yesterday’s ruling by judges, one of whom is a senior member of his Cambodia People’s Party (CPP).
“Prime Minister Hun Sen seems afraid that he will lose elections scheduled for 2018, so he is using the nuclear option to destroy the opposition,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, accusing the Supreme Court of being an organ of the ruling party.
Hun Sen had earlier announced that upon dissolution of the CNRP, its parliamentary seats would be redistributed to other political parties. He has pressured CNRP members who won seats in June’s local elections to switch to the CPP, stating that any other seats won by the CNRP will be taken by the CPP.
Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge apparatchik who has held office for more than three decades, Defence Minister Tea Banh, and other senior government and military officials have made numerous public threats to use force against any Cambodian who protests dissolution of the opposition. More than half of CNRP members of parliament have fled Cambodia in recent weeks, fearing arrest or violence.
On September 3, authorities arrested CNRP president Kem Sokha, imprisoned him and charged him with treason. Kem Sokha’s arrest followed multiple trumped-up criminal cases and convictions against the CNP’s founding president, Sam Rainsy, who has fled into exile to avoid long prison terms.
“Hun Sen is in the process of destroying pluralism, free speech, and all other human rights gains since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991,” said HRW’s Adams. “Donors and diplomats have a choice: do nothing while the chances for democracy are extinguished, or send the message that there will be serious political, economic and diplomatic consequences if Hun Sen returns Cambodia to a de facto one-party state.”
Last month, US Senator Ted Cruz warned that it would be “impossible for the United States and our allies to recognise the legitimacy” of the 2018 national elections if opposition leader Sokha remained in prison. Hun Sen fired back that no international recognition was required. He promptly turned to Moscow for endorsement of next year’s vote, receiving a pledge last Sunday from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to send election monitors.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW Asia, said the Cambodian government is “looking left and right to find someone who will say they are right”.
“[Russia] are going to be basically rubber-stamping whatever the [Cambodian] government wants,” he said. “They can’t even get their elections right.”
Closer relations between Cambodia and Russia also include increased trade in recent years – by as much as 30 per cent in 2016 from the year before.
Hun Sen has also overseen a tightening of ties with China, with massive infrastructure investment from Beijing and trade volume that has risen annually by 26 per cent.
Cambodia’s cosying up to China and Russia has come at the expense of relations with America. US influence in Southeast Asia is waning on the back of President Donald Trump’s “America First” protectionism that has seen him pull out of the Trans Pacific Partnership regional trade deal.
Hun Sen and his administration have ratcheted up anti-US rhetoric in recent months. Hun Sen accused the US embassy of being the mastermind behind Sokha’s “treasonous plot”.
With the opposition disbanded and international pressure relieved by his pivot towards autocratic regimes, Hun Sen’s grip on power seems secure. Cambodian democracy may have been dealt a deadly blow.