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Cambodian 'democracy' is on its last legs

The facade of freedom is fading as Hun Sen puts civil society in his crosshairs

Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks at the Cambodia International Business Summit in Phnom Penh on Feb. 15. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Just a few years after it appeared to be on the verge of a remarkable political rebirth, Cambodia's opposition -- the Cambodia National Rescue Party -- is fighting for survival.

Attacks from the ruling party of Prime Minister Hun Sen began after the CNRP nearly scored an upset victory in the 2013 election and have recently kicked into overdrive.

The country's tenuous democracy, which took root under a United Nations-led peacekeeping operation in the early 1990s, has long been derided as a facade. But in the last year, the political environment has darkened markedly, dragging a heavily compromised system into the realm of unbridled authoritarianism.

In what may prove to be a definitive blow to opposition efforts, Hun Sen's government has passed laws that effectively enable it to dissolve any political party for reasons as vague as making an undefined "serious mistake." The move came in the form of an amendment to the country's Law on Political Parties, passed in February.

The provision also appears to outlaw foreign donations to political parties, which would starve the CNRP of the significant support it receives from the Cambodian diaspora. It allows the government to dissolve parties led by anyone convicted of a crime, an easy proposition in a country where the courts are squarely under the thumb of the ruling party.

Veteran opposition leader Sam Rainsy -- who is living in self-imposed exile for the fourth time to avoid a conviction widely seen as political -- abruptly resigned in response to the new laws. Analysts, however, say it would be premature to write off his leadership, given his record as the "comeback king" of Cambodian politics.

"I cherish and uphold the CNRP's ideals in my heart, [but] how this would translate in the future, we will see," Rainsy told the Nikkei Asian Review, explaining he was stepping down to prevent the CPP dissolving his party on the pretext of his conviction.

Although the door has not firmly shut on his political career, Rainsy's resignation is significant because it is doubtful whether his deputy, Kem Sokha, would surrender the reins of leadership now that he is in the saddle.

Whatever follows, it is likely to benefit Hun Sen, who visibly delights in stoking divisions between the pair.

INTERNAL CLAMPDOWN With the opposition in turmoil, Hun Sen has now turned his sights to the foreign-language media, which has long enjoyed a greater degree of freedom relative to Khmer-language counterparts.

The skewed balance, which creates the appearance of a free press to foreign observers while allowing the premier to strictly control what Cambodians hear in their own language, now appears destined for revision.

"Donald Trump understands that [the media] are an anarchic group," Hun Sen said in a February speech in which he sympathized with the new U.S. president's prickly relationship with the press.

In another speech, he warned that anyone fomenting a "color revolution" -- a term interpreted liberally by his regime -- should "prepare a coffin."

Hun Sen's Mafioso-style rhetoric has been matched by the jailing of nongovernment organization personnel, opposition members and, most recently, political analyst Kim Sok, for comments allegedly linking the government to the killing of fellow commentator and activist Kem Ley.

Ley was murdered at a gas station in the capital last year. On the same day, a media outlet aligned with the ruling party published a piece quoting a directive from Pol Saroeun, Cambodian armed forces chief, who called on the military to "immediately eliminate and dispose of any individuals with a mentality to destroy the peace and cause social turmoil in the country."

The case against his alleged killer has been riddled with absurdities and inconsistencies.

ELECTION FACTOR Attacks on opposition parties and the jailing or assassination of prominent civil society leaders are a well-worn script in the lead-up to Cambodian elections.

The difference this time, as the 2018 national poll draws closer, is that Hun Sen no longer appears willing to maintain even the facade of a functioning democracy.

In 1992-1993, the U.N. spent $1.6 billion in what was to be a crowning achievement of international humanitarian intervention -- the implementation of democracy in a post-authoritarian dictatorship. This operation followed the signing in October 1991 of the Paris peace accords, which officially ended the Cambodian-Vietnamese war and offered a comprehensive political settlement between warring parties aimed at ending the "tragic conflict and continuing bloodshed in Cambodia."

The U.N. did not stay to enforce the result, and a livid Hun Sen refused to accept his defeat in Cambodia's 1993 election, threatening civil war until he was appointed "co-prime minister."

Four years later, scores of his political opponents were murdered by factions of the armed forces loyal to Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party, after which he seized power outright.

"The U.N. [mission] began to fail the minute it did not plan for the transfer of power following the 1993 election," said Lee Morgenbesser, a research fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute. "The latest power grab by Hun Sen merely underscores how ineffectual liberal peace-building and then democracy promotion have been in Cambodia."

Despite his discomfort with the fledgling democratic system, Hun Sen became a master at employing the language of international liberalism to solicit a steady stream of Western aid dollars, in spite of rolling scandals over the embezzlement of donor money by his government.

Like Cambodia's former king and ruler Norodom Sihanouk, he balanced the U.S.-China relationship. But with China's rapidly expanding power in the country, U.S. support and influence has taken a backseat in recent years -- and so has the theater of faux-democracy.

"The United States now has basically zero leverage over Hun Sen's government. The economic, defense and diplomatic support provided by China is now sufficient to internationally shield against any hostile maneuvers by the U.S. or its traditional allies," Morgenbesser said, adding that "the speed with which Hun Sen's government engineered this strategic pivot is amazing."

WHAT NOW? With Rainsy out of the picture, at least for the time being, some CNRP optimists might eye a chance for his former deputy Sokha, now firmly in the driver's seat, to focus squarely on harnessing his wide popular appeal.

Where Rainsy's reputation has been damaged by repeatedly fleeing Cambodia in the face of intimidation, Sokha has reveled under threats, using them as opportunities to demonstrate his courage.

Sokha's reputation has been attacked by the ruling party on multiple fronts. A sustained campaign to paint him as disloyal and immoral through leaked phone conversations has been used as an excuse to level criminal charges for his alleged relationship with a mistress -- despite indiscretions among numerous senior CPP members, including, on occasion, the premier himself.

Perhaps more damaging are accusations of nepotism, a charge often leveled at the ruling party. Sokha appointed 21 advisers and assistants after taking his seat in the National Assembly.

Mass public support for the opposition that materialized around the 2013 election indicated widespread latent resentment against the ruling party. Many Cambodians have been incensed at garish displays of wealth from a regime that has delivered almost no public services and scant infrastructure after more than three decades in power.

Some analysts warn that the latest authoritarian tactics may further inflame those sentiments.

But Morgenbesser says Hun Sen is in a firm position to draw closer to the kind of unmasked authoritarianism seen in the communist regimes of neighboring Vietnam and Laos.

"What can the opposition do? The CNRP has repeatedly said that it is operating in a democracy," he said. "Until it realizes that this is plain wrong, it is doomed to fail strategically."

Mu Sochua, the CNRP's public affairs chief and veteran lawmaker, disagrees, though she acknowledges that her party must adapt to the new circumstances. "The strategy is to say you are not following us, you are the master, you are in control of the destiny of Cambodia," she said.

Sochua herself is a tireless campaigner and former minister with a wealth of experience, but there are questions over her party's capacity to govern. Whether the party will survive to eventually answer those questions is the immediate concern.

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