The political crisis in Cambodia has worsened since 2017. Until then, the authoritarian and repressive regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen was still able to present an image of stability behind a façade of democracy, which hid a handcuffed opposition, manipulated elections and an obedient justice system. But this misleading façade quickly collapsed with the arrest in September 2017 of the leader of the opposition Kem Sokha and the dissolution in November 2017 of the only parliamentary opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) which Kem Sokha had founded with Sam Rainsy in 2012.
Since 2013 the CNRP had the support of almost half of the electorate. Its dissolution was followed in July 2018 by highly controversial elections in which, thanks to the elimination of the CNRP, Hun Sen’s party was able to take all of the seats in the national assembly. This return to a single-party system signalled a death of democracy that could no longer be hidden. It constitutes a violation of the Paris accords of 1991 which guarantee a system of “liberal and pluralist” democracy for Cambodia.
In the face of this lurch into totalitarianism, the international community, with the exception of China, reacted with condemnation. But the strongest reaction came from the European Union, which issued a kind of ultimatum to Cambodia in urging the country to re-establish democratic mechanisms before 12 December 2019, or face the suspension of the trading advantages which are vital for the Cambodian economy known as “Everything but Arms”.
Cambodia now faces a moment of truth and a decisive choice which revolves around the ten following points:
1. Hun Sen will not easily accept to give up power of his own will. Accustomed to autocratic power since 1985 and having committed many reprehensible acts in the course of his long rule, he is seeking at any price to ensure the impunity that only power can guarantee. As he grows older, he aims to conserve this power within his family and is preparing one of his sons, Hun Manet, to succeed him. Increasingly guided by fear, he seems determined to implement his plan to hold and pass on power as he wishes, regardless of the views of the Cambodian people and the international community.
2. In the face of the rise of the united democratic opposition represented by the CNRP, symbolised by the partnership between Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy and strongly supported by a youth impatient for change in a country classed among the most authoritarian, poor and corrupt in the world, Hun Sen has no other option but to intensify the repressive nature of his regime.
3. The most recent spectacular performances of the opposition, which won 44% of votes in the legislative elections of July 2013 and the local elections of June 2017, despite the many irregularities favouring the ruling party, forced Hun Sen’s hand and led him to order the dissolution of the CNRP.
4. The developments of 2017 do not simply signify a change of the rules of the political game, but a change of the game, imposed by Hun Sen. The authoritarian leader has brutally rejected democracy and no longer bothers to keep up a façade for appearances.
5. A false accusation of “treason” made against Kem Sokha served as the pretext for his arrest and the dissolution of the CNRP. This dissolution entailed the banning of 118 CNRP leaders from all political activity and the confiscation of the elected posts which the CNRP had obtained through universal suffrage. These posts which the opposition had won, nationally and locally, were redistributed to supporters of the ruling party.
6. Faced with this negation of universal suffrage and this rejection of fundamental democratic principles and mechanisms, the European Union demands a reversal of course and the cancellation of all the repressive measures taken by the Hun Sen regime since 2017: the ending of the restrictions on the freedom of Kem Sokha, the dropping of all charges made against him and other CNRP leaders, the return of the elected positions that were wrongly confiscated and the restoring of fundamental democratic mechanisms, necessitating the presence and participation of a real opposition in the country’s political life. In current circumstances, the CNRP is the only credible opposition party, because it is the only one to have clear, unquestionable popular legitimacy.
7. The demands of the European Union face resistance in the form of the ferocious will of Hun Sen to preserve his absolute power. Hun Sen correctly identifies the democratic opposition, united under the banner of the CNRP, as the principal threat to his regime. Therefore, he seeks to destroy the CNRP by any means. He is now putting pressure on Kem Sokha – who is today still in the position of a hostage – to try to make him break his alliance with Sam Rainsy, so leading to a fatal division of the democratic opposition.
8. Neither Kem Sokha nor Sam Rainsy are fooled by Hun Sen’s manoeuvres. Both understand the overriding necessity of standing united so that the cause of democracy will prevail. This union can only continue in the context of a CNRP that has to be legally reinstated, leading to the fundamental and legitimate demand of Cambodian democrats for the rehabilitation and reactivation of the CNRP.
9. Since Kem Sokha has been wrongly accused of “treason” and “collusion” with the United States to overthrow the Phnom Penh regime by violent and illegal means – an accusation without foundation which served as a pretext for Hun Sen to dissolve the CNRP – the rehabilitation of the CNRP and all its leaders cannot, logically, pose a problem: it must automatically follow from the rehabilitation of Kem Sokha himself once his innocence is recognised. A virtuous cycle of rehabilitation must replace the vicious cycle of repression.
10. This will lead to the moment of truth. Hun Sen will finally have to demonstrate logic and good faith. The truth is that Hun Sen is trapped by his own hand, because cynicism has its limits. The accusation of “treason” against Kem Sokha, which is at the origin of the repressive measures taken by Hun Sen since 2017, is in the process of falling apart. Hun Sen must himself recognise that there is no serious evidence to support this accusation. A judge under the orders of the executive has just declared – after finding nothing conclusive in over two years – that the Kem Sokha investigation has ended. Hun Sen must therefore either absolve Kem Sokha and lift all restrictions on his rights and liberties, so fully rehabilitating him, or very quickly organise a judicial farce to condemn Kem Sokha for an imaginary crime, which would be unacceptable to the European Union. Even if a conviction of Kem Sokha were to be followed by a royal pardon, such a personal arrangement would not re-establish democracy or the rule of law. This will also be the moment of truth for the European Union, which will have to demonstrate whether or not it respects the norms of truth, justice and democracy, which form part of the set of values which it presents to the whole world.
Co-founder, former president and current interim president, CNRP
The management team of the CNRP, currently in exile abroad, is made up of the interim party president appointed after the arrest of leader Kem Sokha, two of the party’s three vice presidents (Mu Sochua and Eng Chhai Eang), and fifteen of the twenty-five members of the party’s permanent committee who have held their posts since before the arbitrary and illegal dissolution of the party by Hun Sen in 2017.