Dreaming of reform in Cambodia: a democracy to die for?

Photo: World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons

By Dung Phan

It has been more than a month since the prominent Cambodian political commentator Kem Ley was gunned down. His murder has the potential to plant a seed of reform in the country, with most young Cambodians hoping that democracy will take a new direction. However, the question is whether it will move forwards or backwards.

The country’s political cycle has become familiar: the jailing and beating of opposition parliamentarians and human rights; threats against civil society groups, activists and aid workers; and a ban on public protests. All the killings and public assassinations come as no surprise to Cambodians. They hark back to an era of political violence that many thought was over.

A history of unrest

The first election in the post-civil era, held in 1993, brought victory for the FUNCINPEC party. However, Hun Sen decided to take advantage of the strength of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and its link to the military to force FUNCINPEC into a coalition government with him. This show of force resulted in many deaths as clashes swept the country.

Throughout the late 1990s and mid-2000s, public assassinations of opposition figures, civil society leaders, and journalists took place with chilling regularity. Hun Sen managed to defeat or buy off his rivals by offering them a few seats in parliament and consolidate much of Cambodia’s political power. In the late 2000s, his government pursued defamation charges against Sam Rainsy, the leader of the opposition, leading him to flee the country for years. In the meantime, members of his party were murdered.

Last August, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his CPP government began a months-long crackdown to silence dissenting voices. Opposition senator Hong Sok Hour was accused of treason and arrested for allegedly creating “fake” documents related to the 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam border treaty. Two months later, the crackdown turned more violent when two opposition lawmakers, Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Saphea, were severely beaten outside the National Assembly by youths aligned with the ruling party.

Intimidation peaked in January 2016, when Rainsy faced defamation suits, filed by former Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong and National Assembly President Heng Samrin, which forced him back into exile to avoid jail for the fourth time. Meanwhile, opposition politician Um Sam An was arrested in April over comments about the Cambodian-Vietnamese border and remains in detention. At the same time, Kem Sokha, another Cambodian opposition leader remains holed up in the party’s headquarters, facing false legal action over an alleged extramarital affair.

A serious attack

“It’s quite fair to say that what we’re looking at in Cambodia today is a crisis,” says Walter Lohman, director of the foundation’s Asian Studies Centre, adding, “It’s a crisis of democratic governance.”

The current Cambodian system has fallen into the, “political grey zone” where countries are, “neither dictatorial nor clearly headed toward democracy.” Specifically, there is no meaningful participation from the country’s citizens apart from voting and, “the political parties are entertaining each other without making any serious reforms toward a deeper democracy.”

Hun Sen and the CPP government still dominate all the most important political institutions. In the past, Cambodia’s king could have played a significant role as a moral leader, but the current king Norodom Sihamoni is believed to be more reliant on Hun Sen than his predecessor. The government even gets more support from the military than it did in the 1990s.

Against this backdrop, free elections are encouraged, but fraud still exists. The ruling party does not seem shy about carrying out beatings of opposition members in broad daylight. Public assassinations make government critics fear for their safety; sending a message for any potential dissents.

“And then the opposition is exiled, and the whole cycle starts all over again,” said Lohman, implying that Cambodia was once again locked in the vicious circle it has repeated over the past 23 years.

With the 2018 election coming soon, it seems unlikely that it will bring more dissenting voices than in 2013. While Sam Rainsy has been regularly called “a coward” for his lack of courage to stand up to the government, Hun Sen has proven time and again that he believes pursuing democracy is something to die for; not through his words, but through repeated violent actions.