Democracy in Cambodia: A hoax?


In November 2017, the Supreme Court of Cambodia ordered the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the sole opposition party in a nation that has had the same Prime Minister since 1985. The decision taken by the Supreme Court was a year before the country’s election and it banned 118 of the opposition party’s senior officials from politics for a period of five years. The verdict was based on an unrelenting campaign mounted by the ruling party and the Prime Minister Hun Sen, who accused the CNRP of plotting with the United States to overthrow the government. Leaders and activists across the globe decried the verdict, announcing it as the death of democracy in Cambodia. A few months before this decision, Cambodia Daily, the last independently published newspaper in Cambodia, was forced to shut down after the finance ministry presented the publishers with a tax bill of over six million dollars payable within 2 weeks of its issuance. The government had also threatened around 15 radio stations with shutdowns unless they stopped broadcasting certain programmes.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) recognizes freedom of opinion and expression as a human right. It declares that this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) reinforces the same values, but sets certain restrictions “for the respect of rights or reputation of others” or “for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”. Moreover, the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, formerly known as the Comprehensive Cambodian Peace Agreements, ended the long-drawn conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia. The principles espoused by it, which found its way into the Constitution of Cambodia 2 years later, provided for the freedom of expression and political choice.

While these principles and values are present in the Constitution of Cambodia, whether these have been preserved as rights, and protected, is something that comes under immense scrutiny. The Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, published in September 2019, commented on the dire state of democracy in the country due to the presence of a strong ruling party dominating the legislative arena. In addition, the intermittent arrests of political opposition members, and the dissolution of the CNRP, prior to the 2017 elections are amongst a few other concerns that pose a question-mark with respect to the genuineness of these elections, an important concept stipulated in Article 25 of the ICCPR. Arrests without warrants have also been a continuous threat that the ruling party has imposed on members or supporters of opposing parties.

The arbitrariness of these arrests has been an additional concern. The president of the CNRP, KemSokha, was arrested in 2017, with the ruling party stating that they had evidence, alleging him of treason. The evidence provided, however, turned out to be a highly edited version of a speech he had delivered in 2013 in Australia. In August 2019, a group of former members of the CNRP announced the return of exiled party leader Sam Rainsy and a few others to Cambodia on November 9th, Cambodia’s Independence Day. The Prime Minister, Hun Sen, immediately responded by issuing directives to prevent the entry of Rainsy back into the country. The government also sent arrest warrants to all 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states in an effort to prevent him from entering the country. Here, it is important to note that Cambodia, being a party to the ICCPR, has a duty to ensure that no one is arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country (Article 12).

The West has appropriately been unhappy with the developments in Cambodia. The European Union (EU) has threatened to withdraw the “Everything but Arms” (EBA) scheme that Cambodia enjoys. The EBA scheme gives around 49 of the poorest countries duty-free access to EU markets. The EU accounts to almost 45% of Cambodia’s exports. While the Cambodian government responded by releasing KemSokha from house arrest, this has been seen as a move to appease the EU and “hoodwink” the international community. The European Commission, which coordinates the trade policies of the EU, stated that the decision regarding whether to continue providing Cambodia with the benefits of the scheme would be published in February 2020.

The situation in Cambodia is definitely not ideal for a country that claims to be democratic. The ruling party must take steps to preserve the essence of a democracy. After all, as Harry S Truman, the former President of the United States, once said: “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear”.

Meet the author

Karthik Subramaniam is a second year undergraduate student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, India. His main research interest lies in the area of alternative dispute resolutions, including mediation and negotiation. He also dabbles in areas of international human rights, child rights and refugee laws.

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