Mass trial of Cambodian opposition points to Hun Sen’s future plans for repression

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Photo: World Trade Organization from Switzerland, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen suppresses political opponents in an attempt to protect his power and prepare for the next general election, many Southeast Asian countries, particularly Thailand, are facilitating his political repression.

By Umair Jamal

Cambodia’s courts have begun a mass trial against supporters and members of the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Prime Minister Hun Sen has substantially increased persecution of his political opponents in a bid to stay in power and prepare for the next general election in 2023 by blocking the opposition. The CNRP has been banned since 2017.

Several Southeast Asian countries, particularly Thailand, are helping Hun Sen in his political oppression and efforts to sideline key democratic forces.

Hun Sen pushes to wipe out remaining political opposition to his regime

The first mass trial, which kicked off in late November, witnessed chaotic scenes in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. The court was unable to establish the number of defendants present and appeared unprepared to handle the trial of more than 120 people with ties to the banned CNRP. Defendants were called using incorrect ages and misspelled names. The accused voiced complaints that they had not been given information about the charges against them.

Some of the defendants termed their court summons a “joke”. Reacting to the summons, Daley Uy, a Cambodian political activist living in the United States, said “Of course, I know it’s a joke. It’s all nonsense, they just put our name on there.”

The CNRP party still poses a serious political challenge to Hun Sen’s rule despite being banned and the prime minister has pushed the mass trial to intimidate and discredit his opponents.

Theary Seng, a vocal critic of Hun Sen and one of the accused, challenged her charges, saying they included no explanation of the case against her. “When someone is charged, the law requires a reason for the indictment to be attached, but my case and others do not have such. We only received a piece of paper charging us with plotting and incitement without giving any reason from the investigating judge,” said Theary Seng.

Cambodia’s courts are under pressure from the government to expedite the mass trial. The rushed proceedings and the continued ban against the CNRP show that the country’s courts are complicit in a dictatorial political agenda.

Rhona Smith, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, said the cases appeared to be “politically motivated, lacking clear legal grounds and constitute a serious violation of the due process rights, firmly established by international human rights law.”

“This is not an isolated episode. Civic and democratic space in Cambodia has continued to shrink and there remains little evidence of political rapprochement and reconciliation,” she said.

Kem Sokha. Photo: Bunnarith Chhea, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Is Hun Sen preparing for the next general election?

Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 35 years, is grooming his son as his potential successor. The last general election in July 2018 showed that Hun Sen was willing to go to any lengths to stay in power.  

Ahead of the 2018 poll, Hun Sen eliminated the CNRP and placed its president, Kem Sokha, on trial for treason. Sokha was arrested in September 2017 over an alleged plot to overthrow the government but authorities have now delayed the trial, citing the pandemic. The prime minister has reportedly said that Sokha’s treason trial may not restart until 2024, keeping him in prison through the next elections.

Observers say that one of the reasons Hun Sen is pushing ahead with the mass trial is to undercut Sokha’s support base and persuade him to join one of the smaller opposition parties which do not stand a chance in the next polls.

Regarding the current mass trial, CNRP Vice-President Mu Sochua told the Financial Times, “This [trial] is a total weaponization of the justice system by Mr. Hun Sen in order to continue to keep his power.”

“It’s also because he’s preparing the terrain for local elections in 2022 and general elections in 2023,” she added. Sochua left Cambodia in 2017 for the US after Sokha was arrested, though she has attempted to return in the years since.

Commenting on the growing political repression in Cambodia amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said “Prime Minister Hun Sen took advantage of the global pandemic to step up his repression of critics and adopt more draconian laws.”

Last year, Cambodia’s parliament passed an emergency law to combat the COVID-19 crisis. However, the law gives Hun Sen sweeping powers, allowing him to monitor communications, control media and restrict the distribution of information which the government considers to undermine national security.

“Even before the coronavirus, Hun Sen ran roughshod over human rights, so these sweeping, undefined, and unchecked powers should set off alarm bells among Cambodia’s friends and donors,” said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Photo: World Travel & Tourism Council / CC BY

Southeast Asian neighbors are facilitating helping Hun Sen’s political repression

Cambodia’s neighbors have encouraged Hun Sen’s political repression, cooperating with him to target dissidents. In November 2019, Malaysia detained Sochua following a request from Cambodia’s government. Commenting on Sochua’s arrest, Malaysia’s then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad said that his country didn’t want to interfere in the internal matters of other ASEAN countries.

Cambodia has a similar relationship with Thailand. “Since 2014, the Thai and Cambodian governments have worked closely together to return dissidents to each other,” Paul Chambers, who teaches international affairs at Naresuan University in Thailand, told New Naratif.

Chambers says Thai authorities have been sharing information on CNRP supporters with the Cambodian government. “The Thais are expecting in return that the Cambodians will arrest Thailand’s regime opponents,” said Chambers.

According to Chambers, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar also have such agreements with Cambodia.

Robertson from Human Rights Watch noted the history of cooperation between the Cambodian and Thai governments in the policing of political opponents. “This is about trading favors, almost like a sort of swap mart for political exiles and refugees between the two sides,” he said. 

In 2019, the Thai government said it would refuse entry to CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, as he planned to enter Cambodia via Thailand.

“According to our commitment to ASEAN, we will not interfere in each other’s internal affairs, and we will not allow an anti-government person to use Thailand for activism,” Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said in a statement at the time. “I have ordered this, so he probably won’t get in.”

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at and on Twitter @UmairJamal15