Cambodian court issues arrest warrants for opposition leaders despite the threat of sanctions

Photo Credit: VOA/Wikimedia Commons

New arrest warrants for Cambodian opposition leaders show Hun Sen’s commitment to political repression despite the threat of sanctions. The best chance at resolution may be an EU-backed dialogue between Hun Sen and exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy.


A Cambodian court has issued warrants for the arrest of eight opposition leaders including Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) founder Sam Rainsy and vice-presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang on treason charges.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for over 30 years and has long suppressed the opposition. But the repression of dissent has become more emboldened. Cambodia is now a de facto one-party state. The European Union (EU) and the US have called for an end to political repression. Both are considering revoking Cambodia’s trade privileges. But these strategies will do little to deter Hun Sen. Cambodia has deepened ties with China and other allies who don’t bring human rights concerns to the table when discussing trade deals.

The newest arrest warrants are part of Hun Sen’s strategy to reduce popular support for Rainsy, should he return. The warrants, as well as Hun Sen’s Article 45 amendment, fracture the banned party by encouraging its leadership to defect. The US and the EU would be more effective in protecting the civil and political rights of Cambodians if they push for political dialogue between Hun Sen and the opposition, rather than sanctions that will sink the Cambodian economy.

The new warrants are the latest in a plan to cripple the CNRP

A Cambodian court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017 in the lead up to July 2018 elections for allegedly attempting to destabilise the government. The CNRP had won over 44% of the popular vote in the 2013 national election. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) saw the party’s dissolution as necessary to preserve the status quo. The court banned 118 of the CNRP’s senior officials from political activity for five years.

In January of this year, the Cambodian government passed an amendment to Article 45 of the Law on Political Parties. The amendment allows Hun Sen to ask the king to restore the political rights of any individual, including people previously banned from politics.

Any CNRP politician who petitions Hun Sen to restore their rights has to renounce their party membership. Rainsy has said that anyone who takes Hun Sen’s offer to re-enter politics is a “traitor” to the CNRP.

The CNRP itself may be banned but it still enjoys widespread support, particularly in the nation’s capital. It also won 46% of the popular vote in June 2017 local elections. If Rainsy returns to Cambodia, he would provide the opposition with a leader to rally around.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) talks to the press with Sam Rainsy (L) president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), after the National Assembly vote to select the members of National Election Committee in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on April 9th, 2015.
Photo Credit: Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons

Rainsy has lived in exile since 2015, the year the government last issued a warrant for his arrest. Rainsy had already been sentenced in absentia to jail time and fines for comments he made about the Cambodian Foreign Minister in 2008, but he was pardoned by the king in 2013. The US responded by calling for the Cambodian government to drop the charges and address the country’s “deteriorating political climate.”

The new warrants show that current pressure from the EU and US is ineffective

The EU and US are both pushing for democratic reforms. Cambodia currently enjoys tariff-free and quota-free trade with the EU under the Everything But Arms (EBA) program. Cambodia exported US$5.8 billion to the EU in 2017, with over 99% of exports falling under the EBA program. The EU told the Cambodian government last October to improve its human rights record and cease political suppression, threatening to cancel its EBA privileges. The EU is now reviewing Cambodia’s trade status.

The US Congress is also considering a bill that would ask the Trump administration to review Cambodia’s trade privileges under the General System of Preferences (GSP). The Hun Sen government has traded with the US under the GSP since 1997 and currently exports over US$180 million of duty-free goods per year to the US.

“The regime of Hun Sen has steadily dismantled what was a burgeoning democracy of Southeast Asia,” said US Congressman Allen Lowenthal. “He has undermined the will of the people, subverted the promise of free and fair elections, and wielded power with the iron glove of a dictator.”

But the CPP appears unconcerned by the threat of damaged economic relations with the US and EU. Hun Sen is instead pushing for Cambodia to continue its pivot towards China. The new warrants against Rainsy and others are a sign that the current government is willing to forsake trade with the US and the EU, crippling the country’s economy.

If the US and EU hit Cambodia with debilitating sanctions, both sides are to blame

The EU and the US would be more effective if they maintained current trade deals and pledged to support the CNRP and those targeted by political repression. Hun Sen’s government has recognized that the CNRP’s popular support represents a significant challenge to his rule. The threat of publicly lending support to the political opposition could have more leverage in getting Hun Sen to improve his government’s human rights record than trade sanctions.

The opposition could become an existential threat to the Hun Sen regime if the US and EU explicitly supported the CNRP. According to Cambodian political commentator Kim Sok, “If [the EU and US] do announce their support for the people, this will encourage members of the public and military who wish to remove Hun Sen, because he has treated them unjustly. Such an announcement would also encourage those within the ruling party who are worried or have been victimized by Hun Sen.”

This doesn’t mean backing regime change but instead giving a voice to those whose political rights have been violated and pressuring the CPP into allowing open political contests and dialogue. This won’t happen quickly. A key first step would be to support dialogue between the CNRP and Hun Sen.

Hun Sen has said that if the EU goes ahead with sanctions, it (or he) may hurt the opposition. “If you want the opposition dead, just cut it,” he said in a speech in January. “If you want the opposition alive, don’t do it and come and hold talks together.”

The Prime Minister is likely hoping that his government can sell his amendment to Article 45 as proof of democratic reform and the EU will be satisfied to walk away with the EBA intact, having fulfilled their obligations. But dialogue could also give the EU the chance to get very specific with their demands, specifically calling for talks between Rainsy and the current government.

If the international community can help both sides lay the groundwork for dialogue, it could prevent both the economic upheaval of ending the EBA and the instability that Cambodia will face if Rainsy returns under current conditions. Hun Sen claims the end of the EBA will mean the end of the CNRP, but so will inaction from the international community, as the CPP works to dismantle the country’s popular opposition.

About the Author

ASEAN Today is a leading ASEAN commentary site. Our HQ is in Singapore. We publish business, political and fintech commentaries daily, covering ASEAN and Greater China. Twitter: @Asean_Today Facebook: The Asean Today