Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Sar Kheng on Sunday refuted claims that the Kingdom’s democracy has taken a step backwards in recent years.
Analysts responded by saying that Sar Kheng’s comments were an attempt to deflect the growing international criticism being levelled against the Cambodian People’s Party-led government.
Speaking at a Christian festival commemorating Easter Sunday in Battambang province, Sar Kheng said democracy in Cambodia is moving forward and that democratic infrastructure continues to exist in the Kingdom.
Sar Kheng claimed that the Kingdom’s democratic infrastructure is self-evident, citing the more than 40 registered political parties currently carrying out political activities.
He continued that there are more than five thousand national and international NGOs and associations operating in the Kingdom, some of which are critical of the government.
Sar Kheng also claimed full freedom of speech is allowed for all types of media, both locally and broadcasted from the US via Free Asia Radio and VOA, as well as the broadcasting of Australian, French and Chinese radio.
Furthermore, he said, national elections are held on a regular basis.
“This is a multi-party democratic system and this shows in its [the system’s] implementation and its respect for freedom and human rights. I think that [we] can conclude that there is no path aside from democracy that can allow Cambodia to move forward. We must all be committed to further protecting and strengthening democracy in Cambodia,” Sar Kheng said.
Political analyst Meas Nee said he was not surprised by what Sar Kheng said as it is the right of government officials to speak out in defence against international criticism.
But, he continued, the government will be impacted if political parties find themselves unable to carry out activities freely and equally.
“It doesn’t mean that democracy in our country has fallen to zero. But the important thing is that in a democratic regime, there are some indicators which cannot be lost and when they are lost, [the international community] will say we have a democratic deficit."
“The main indicator is the existence of multiple parties carrying out their duties in a free and equitable manner, which play a role in [political] competition. When there is an unfair competition, in which the powerful oppress the weak by restricting them or having the ruling party restrict the opposition, that is detrimental to democracy,” Nee said.
He added that though Cambodia has many media outlets, freedom of expression is still restricted and threatened through measures such as phone call tapping.
Kin Phea, director-general of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said the democratic process in Cambodia is moving forward. He said citizens have exercised their right to decide the fate of the country through participation in regular national elections since 1993.
However, he said the Kingdom needs more encouragement to boost freedom in the media, as well as broaden and improve the rights of politicians.
At the same Easter ceremony, Sar Kheng said there exists a group who regard the current government as illegitimate and want to lead a force to topple them.
He urged them to have mercy on the Kingdom because such a power seizure will push Cambodia backwards, causing it to “fall into mud” like in the 1970s, and that it would harm the Kingdom’s move towards further development.
Sar Kheng acknowledged that his party’s leadership of the government is not perfect and that is why they have enacted reforms.