PHNOM PENH -- With Prime Minister Hun Sen firmly back in power after securing an expected victory in Cambodia's national election on Sunday, the future of opposition politicians has turned bleak in the increasingly authoritarian state.
Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party declared Monday it had won up to 123 of the 125 parliamentary seats up for grabs. Hours before the results were even announced, exiled former opposition leader Sam Rainsy branded the ballot a "senseless victory."
But the CPP's resounding victory was massively tainted by the absence of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the ruling party's only realistic threat, that came close to a shock victory in the 2013 general election. The party was dissolved last November and its leader, Kem Sokha, is facing 30 years behind bars on widely discredited claims he was plotting a U.S.-backed revolution.
Many of the CNRP's high-ranking officials, 118 of whom were banned from politics last November for five years, have since fled the country while opposition commune chiefs have been forced to find other ways to pay the bills after losing their jobs. In Cambodia, a district's subdivisions are referred to as communes.
Seak Chamnap, 34, who was elected chief of Nokor Thom commune in Siem Reap province in last year's local elections, said he was forced to return to farming and construction work as hotel owners wouldn't employ him in the provincial capital's booming services sector.
Despite struggling to make ends meet, at times having to borrow from microfinance companies, he still regularly meets with locals to offer advice on agriculture. He said he is continually harassed by local authorities.
"The local authorities make verbal threats," he said. "Provincial and commune police have summoned me for questioning when I have tried to help and find justice for villagers who have been threatened by local authorities."
Former CNRP activists were reminded of the dangers in heeding the calls of their exiled leaders on July 26 when five former opposition officials were found guilty of obstructing people from voting and fined $2,500 each over a Facebook post supporting a boycott campaign.
Heng Seang Leang, 33, former Veal Vong commune chief in Phnom Penh, who now sells rice and conducts social work, said Cambodia was now an outright "dictatorship" and young people were censoring their views as a result.
"It is hard for the youth both in cities and countryside to participate in politics now because they are under many kinds of threats and they are under local authority surveillance," he said.
Despite this, Heng Seang Leang was still hoping to one day be back on board with his former party. "When the CNRP is reborn, I will come back and join its politics because I see the CNRP is the only big hope for the people and the country," he said.
While Prime Minister Hun Sen's three sons are rising through the ranks of the ruling party and other offspring of high-ranking officials are beginning to bag lucrative roles in government, Kem Monovithya, a senior opposition official and daughter of Kem Sokha, sounded optimistic.
She said the opposition would be lobbying the international community and calling for a re-election, adding this was the "last chance for change." In a statement released at a news conference in Jakarta on Monday, Kem Monovithya and former CNRP deputy Mu Sochua rejected what they branded a "costly electoral circus."
Exiled former CNRP deputy Mu Sochua called upon the country's youth to remain engaged in opposition politics, pointing to the mass pro-democracy sit-ins led by students in Hong Kong in 2014.
"You can't just wait for democracy to be handed over to you on a civil platter. It's an easy way out," Mu Sochua said. "Don't blame CNRP for not bringing in youth. We have kept this open for a long time but the youth in Cambodia, some are waiting for things to happen. [This is] complacent, letting other youth take the heat."
Yong Heng, 25, student and a founder of the ASEAN Young Political Leaders Network, said he no longer supported the CNRP, calling its former exiled leader Sam Rainsy "too old and weak." He said he was hoping to help pave a "new path."
Some young people with "nowhere to go" had decided to take government jobs in ministries covering issues they are interested in while others are temporarily keeping their heads down, Yong Heng said.
"Still many young Cambodians are beginning to stay a bit silent ... and starting up small businesses or continuing their academic studies and waiting for the right time again, but I don't see they're scared of anything," he said.
Back in the capital, former CNRP commune chief Heng Seang Leang said he believed the spirit of the party would live on despite the cynicism in some quarters.
"The CNRP's structure is in the mind," he said.