On July 29, legislative elections were held in Cambodia, a parliamentary constitutional monarchy in Southeast Asia, ruled for 33 years by former Khmer Rouge Hun Sen with his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
The polls delivered an largely predicted victory to the ruling party CPP and another five years of Prime ministership to Hun Sen. The predictability of the outcome was due to the regime’s crackdown which culminated on 16 November 2017 with a politically motivated ruling by the Supreme Court, presided over by a member of the PPC, that banned the only viable opposition party capable of offering an alternative, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The opposition, gathered mainly around Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, had launched the “clean finger” campagin in order to boycott the sham elections to delegitimize the result. With the seats closed, the government announced with great fanfare the turnout figure: 82%. According to the CNRP the turnout did not reach 50%. In February 2017 Rainsy received yet another “ad personam” ruling that forced him into self-imposed exile in Paris. Kem Sokha, his successor, was arrested on 3 September 2017 on charges of treason and collusion with foreign powers to overthrow the government. He remains in prison waiting to be judged.
According to the government these elections represented a great democratic test corroborated by the high turnout and the massive presence of international observers. The National Election Commission recognized over 50.000 national and international observers coming from China, Russia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Kazakhstan, Iran, India, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. In the aftermath of the vote, many governments of these countries hailed the elections as a democratic success. The United States, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, UK, France, Germany and Sweden stood by their decision not to send any observer and stated that the elections were “neither free nor fair”.
The final results are still unknown, but it is irrelevant whether, out of the 125 seats in the National Assembly, 5 or 10 will go to smaller parties. In fact, almost all of the twenty parties on the ballot paper were “firefly parties” fabricated for the occasion to keep the clumsy illusion of a multiparty competition. The one-party State already exists and it has just grown stronger. Suffice to say that the CPP swept every single indirectly elected Senate seat last February.
In this context, from 26 July to 5 August, a delegation of the Nonviolent Radical Party Transnational Transnational (NPRTT) went on a mission to Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. The delegation was composed by the undersigned, Matteo Angioli, by Senator Roberto Rampi and by Radio Radicale Asia correspondent Francesco Radicioni. The delegation was also joined by Yukihisa Fujita, Director of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense of the Japanese Senate.
Since Sam Rainsy has been a member of the NRPTT for many years, our collaboration with the opposition is strong. All former parliamentary opposition and around 200 activists of the Cambodian diaspora subsquently joined the NRPTT. In 2003 and 2008 Marco Pannella himself went to Phnom Penh to support Rainsy’s election campaign. By meeting politicians, diplomats, journalists, members of local NGOs and ordinary citizens as well, we renewed our support to the CNRP in the darkest moment for the opposition and for democracy and to document the general conditions of the country.
In Bangkok, we met with some Montagnard refugees who fled from the persecution of the Vietnamese government. Before moving to Phnom Penh we also met two former CNRP lawmakers: former MP Long Ry and Senate candidate Mounh Sarath. They are two of the six former parliamentarians remaining in Thailand despite the stalking and pressure they must live with in Bangkok. Both believe that in order to weaken Hun Sen, targeted sanctions are necessary so as penalize individual members of the Hun Sen government.
Once in Phnom Penh, the omnipresence of Hun Sen’s party immediately became clear. The only visible electoral billboards and posters belonged to the CPP. We seldom saw one of the other parties. The main meeting was with Teav Vannol, a former Senator and one of the very few opponents not to leave Cambodia. We were welcomed in the former CNRP headquarters. Teav said he was willing to rebuild the opposition, without going into details on how, given the absolutely adverse situation created in the country.
Thanks to deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s of Asia division Phil Robertson, we learned about the presence of another delegation of about 50 sitting and former MPs from Europe, mainly from the Visegrad Group countries. They also included seven Italians, a French and a Briton belonging to far-right parties who had been invited by the pro-Russian NGO “Kian”. Italian lawmakers included Antonio Razzi, Andrea Delmastro, Fabrizio Bertot and Luca Bellotti. Welcomed with honors by Hun Sen, they did not seem to know much about the country and they did not miss the opportunity to express satisfaction for the perfect conduct of the elections. Indeed, the methods set up by the government to encourage participation and check that voters voted “correctly” were perfect. They ranged from the distribution of envelopes containing 5 dollars to builders and textile workers, to discounts on the purchase of goods for daily use, to threats of suspension of salary.
Hun Sen has managed to get rid of the opposition and to consolidate China’s political, economic and military support. Cambodia has a Constitution, a separation of powers, a parliament, a Supreme Court, but they are hollow institutions and processes. It all depends on Hun Sen’s family. As Global Witness founder, Patrick Alley, puts it: “There’s nothing that happens there that they don’t control, and that is corruption in its most egregious form. That’s what it’s like in Cambodia. It is a mafia state”.
Despite decades of aid from the United States, the EU, Japan and Australia Cambodia today is a kleptocracy and Hun Sen can even afford to snub aid as Cambodia further gravitates towards China. This is demonstrated in particular by the huge Chinese investments in Sihanoukville. Nowadays, dealing with Cambodia means dealing with Southeast Asia, a territory crossed by flows of political and economic interests between the West and China. Crucially, if cooperation with the EU has raised people from extreme poverty (the rate of poverty has fallen from 53% in the early 2000s to 14% today) and has given a voice to the Cambodian democrats, it is also true that the European Commission knew that the wind would change. Changing the status quo now is much more complicated. Millions of Cambodians have become structurally dependent on our aid and their suspension would be a serious blow.
In conclusion, Southeast Asia is a region where on the one hand Myanmar seems to take a step towards freedom and on the other Cambodia descends into dictatorship. Take a look at ASEAN and you will see that the trend is hardly promising. None of the ten members is governed by the democratic rule of law. Some analysts speak of “guided democracies” that would allow speedy decision-making and greater development. But at what cost? That of living in the absence of a rule of law, left to the whims of a regime in which no one’s rights are ever secure and in which some individual or groups will always remain above the law.