A brazen attempt to muzzle democracy in Cambodia

opinion November 19, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

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Decision by the Supreme Court to ban the country’s only credible opposition party makes a mockery of justice

Cambodia’s Supreme Court this past week dissolved the country’s only credible opposition party, effectively laying to rest the only viable political rival to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of strongman Hun Sen.

It’s a sad day for the people of Cambodia and for the country’s democracy, as the judiciary allowed itself to be used as a convenient political tool by Hun Sen, by ruling to disband the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). 

The court also barred 118 members of the party from politics for five years and banned all the party’s elected members.

It was a slap on the face of the international community that had supported the post-Khmer Rouge democratisation efforts in this once war-torn country.

Billions of aid money were spent to help build the country after the loss and devastation caused by the Khmer Rouge genocide. 

Needless to say, the project has proved to be a failure, largely because of people like Hun Sen who furthered his own and his cronies’ interests, neglecting the people and the need to build institutions so that democracy could take root and grow stronger in the country.

Hun Sen’s rise to power was made possible by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) that administered the country in 1992-93 in line with the Paris Peace Accord that was agreed a year earlier. UNTAC’s goal was to establish democracy and restore the rule of law following years of civil war.

Unfortunately, power struggle and bickering among major political parties paved the way for the rise of Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years without establishing strong democratic institutions.

There has been a consistent attempt to silence the opposition and government critics. Many were driven out of the country and at one time, journalists were shot dead at point-blank range in a crowded market to send a stern warning to critics. 

At one opposition rally, several grenades were tossed in the middle of the crowd, tearing people’s arms and legs apart.

From such cruel methods, the attempt to suppress critical voices has only become more sophisticated. Just this past week, two Cambodian journalists working for the US-funded Radio Free Asia were charged with espionage. It was part of Hun Sen’s ongoing crackdown on critics of his authoritarian regime.

The writing was on the wall when the Supreme Court decided to take up the CPP’s claim that the opposition was conspiring with the United States to prepare for the next general election. For that, the CNRP was convicted of treason.

Since then, media groups like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, as well as the US-based international non-government organisation, the National Democratic Institute, have been forced to cease operations. 

Cambodia Daily, one of the country’s leading English-language papers, was forced to close its operations after some bogus charges from the government accusing the media outlet of not paying enough taxes.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on the European Union, Japan and other donors not to provide financial and technical assistance for Cambodia’s 2018 national elections because by doing so, these donors would only legitimise a morally bankrupt regime.

Global Witness said Cambodia has effectively descended into “outright dictatorship”.

But if modern history tells us anything it is that the Cambodian people are resilient. They have lived through much agony and pain in past, but they never gave up their struggle for a better society, even against great odds and ruthless tactics and intimidation by the government.

Hun Sen’s tactics are nothing less than cowardice. He is scared of losing power because he knows that the new generation of voters want something that he cannot deliver.  

He can silence some of his critics. But the Cambodian people cannot be silenced forever.