Cambodia bids farewell to democracy

Supreme Court rules to dissolve the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, effectively making premier Hun Sen ruler of a one party state

Originally published by Asia Times (November 16, 2017)

 

Cambodia’s Supreme Court today officially dissolved the country’s largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), a decision that will effectively make the Southeast Asian nation a one-party state.

The court decision said 118 of the party’s senior officials will be banned from politics for five years and the party’s 489 commune chiefs, elected at June’s local elections, will also lose their positions.

The court’s ruling came after the Interior Ministry filed a lawsuit on October 6 to dissolve the CNRP over claims it colluded with foreign powers to overthrow the government and was fomenting a so-called “color revolution.”

Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s president, was arrested in September over related trumped-up treason charges. He remains in jail and could be sentenced to 30 years when he goes to trial on the anti-state charges. Nearly half of all CNRP lawmakers have now fled the country.

Cambodia democracy has now become an “oxymoron,” said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.

The CNRP’s dissolution effectively hands Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) victory at the next general election, which will take place in July 2018.

At the last general election, in 2013, almost three million people voted for the CNRP, roughly 300,000 fewer votes than the CPP received. Other smaller parties combined only gained 7% of the vote.

“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,” Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, a lobbying group, said in a press release.

There have been no reports yet of public protests against the decision.

Access to the Supreme Court and the surrounding area was barricaded off by authorities this morning, while military personnel were stationed at strategic locations across Phnom Penh, including Freedom Park, where major pro-CNRP rallies were held in 2013. Police were reportedly stopping known activists from traveling to the capital this week.

“It’s very sad, what can we do? There are so many police,” said Chhoun, a CNRP sympathizer who was milling around near the police barricade.

Len Leng, a journalist and former reporter for the Cambodia Daily, an independent newspaper closed by the government in September on tax evasion accusations, was detained by the police near the cordoned-off area this morning, apparently for not possessing a press pass.

The CPP government’s tactics represent a break from the past. In 1997, then co-premier Hun Sen staged a coup to oust the royalist Funcinpec party from a power-sharing government. This time, however, his government has been methodical in using legal means to eliminate the opposition.

It’s not clear to most observers that the CNRP received a fair trial. Dith Munty, the Supreme Court judge who presided over the ruling, is a member of the CPP’s permanent committee and an old Hun Sen ally.

Successive changes to the Law on Political Parties, rubber-stamped by the National Assembly in sessions CNRP lawmakers boycotted, granted the government legal powers to dissolve the opposition party on flimsy charges. The amendments were then accepted without question by the upper house Senate.

Some commentators and CNRP politicians were expecting a last minute reprieve from Hun Sen, though it never came. But even if the CNRP had not been dissolved by court order, analysts agreed that the party would have been a shadow of its former self ahead of the next polls.

“CNRP has ceased to [function] as political party since the arrest of Kem Sokha. Whatever is today’s ruling is meaningless,” Monovithya Kem, the party’s deputy director general of public affairs and Kem Sokha’s daughter, tweeted this morning.

The party’s deputy president, Mu Sochua, fled Cambodia last month after a tip-off about her imminent arrest. She told local media this week that even if the CNRP was not dissolved, “free and fair elections [are] out of the question.”

At the same time, there were already signs that well-known fissures within the CNRP were becoming intractable chasms. Earlier this month, the party’s former leader, Sam Rainsy, claimed CNRP lawmaker Mao Monyvann was orchestrating a “coup” within the party.

He alleged that Monyvann was in cohorts with the CPP and was trying to become the CNRP’s new leader. This theory was rejected by some other party members, including Monyvann.

Monyvann, however, has caused frictions by insinuating cowardice among the CNRP politicians who have fled the country in recent weeks. “I cannot run and leave my hero [Kem Sokha] who is facing everything and dares to go to jail. I cannot do that. But those living abroad, you left with your choice,” he told local media this month.

So what’s next for the CNRP? One option is to become an exiled group that campaigns from abroad for democratic change. The CNRP is, in fact, adroit at lobbying international governments and has established networks in America, France, South Korea and Australia.

Another possibility is that CNRP members form a new party to compete at next year’s polls, though this would be difficult. The government has already drawn up a list of more than 100 CNRP officials, mostly senior figures, it wants banned from politics for five years, which the amended political party law can apparently enforce.

That would mean only junior members can join a reformed CNRP. And there is no guarantee that the government wouldn’t again dissolve it on similar grounds.

Leaders of some of the smaller parties have also faced oppression in recent months. And most don’t have the nationwide apparatus to compete in a general election. Only the CPP and CNRP won seats at the last election.

Changes to the political parties law means the CNRP’s 55 seats in parliament will now be distributed to small political parties within a week. The government no doubt hopes these offices, which come with a state salary, luxury vehicle and political influence, will tempt leaders of certain smaller parties against opposing the CPP at the next election.

The royalist Funcinpec, which was ousted from a power-sharing government with the CPP in a bloody 1997 coup and attempted another failed coalition years later, has cozied up to the CPP in an apparent bid to gain some of the CNRP’s seats.

The National Election Committee said earlier Funcinpec will take 41 of the CNRP’s 55 seats, despite winning less than 4% of the vote at the 2013 general election. Some of the other smaller parties designated seats have already said they would reject them.

The CNRP’s seeming last hope is that public protests compel the court and government to rescind its dissolution. Alternatively, the international community could opt to impose sanctions on Cambodian officials for undermining democracy, a move that would put economic pressure on the government.

CPP officials are certainly concerned about potential unrest. In the days leading up to today’s decision, police and soldiers were stationed on the capital’s streets, including the Prime Minister’s fearsome personal bodyguard unit near the city’s center.

This week, Interior Minister Sar Kheng told provincial governors to create “standby working groups” to monitor unrest. Officials in Koh Kong, an eastern province, pledged to take legal action against anyone who travels to the capital to protest.

The Phnom Penh Post reported that the Interior Ministry has also instructed each of its departments this week to create reserve forces who “must wear combat uniforms” and be ready to mobilize to “implement orders” when necessary.

The spark needed to prompt protests might be found in the possible return of Sam Rainsy, the CNRP’s co-founder and former president, who went into exile in late 2015. He announced on Twitter yesterday that he would rejoin the CNRP as an “ordinary member.”

He stepped down as CNRP president in February after changes to the law meant that political parties would be dissolved if their leaders held past criminal convictions. Sam Rainsy has numerous politicized defamation charges on his record.

But it is hard to see how Sam Rainsy’s decision to rejoin the now dissolved CNRP will make any impact on Cambodian politics if he remains in exile. If he was to return to Cambodia, facing almost certain arrest, or worse, this might prompt major protests and more attention from the international community.

“It could make things interesting, but he won’t return unless his safety is guaranteed,” said Sophal Ear.

Sam Rainsy insinuated as much in an interview with European media this week. “[Hun Sen] would not hesitate to kill me or to kill any other leader of the CNRP… this is a different game,” he said.

“Nobody is eternal. [Hun Sen] must realize that he has to prepare his retirement and I think we need to give him some guarantees,” he added in a conciliatory note.

In September, Hun Sen promised to continue ruling for another decade to “maintain stability.” But rumors about his health suggest that’s a bluff. Indeed, Cambodian pundits are busy speculating about when, not if, a CPP leadership succession will take place.

His eldest son, Hun Manet, a high-ranking military general and businessman, is the most likely candidate, analysts say. He has been more prominent in politics lately, including a visit to Thailand to help migrant Cambodian workers last month.

Another possibility is Interior Minister Sar Kheng, who has been gradually building up a large patronage network within the party and military in recent years.

For now, the ruling CPP’s main goal will be to secure a landslide victory at next year’s general election, a surety now without the CNRP as a credible and thorny competitor.

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