Just days after the Supreme Court dissolved Cambodia’s primary opposition party, government officials and affiliates yesterday gathered to praise the unprecedented move as a strengthening of democracy, even as international organisations and governments around the world have condemned it.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was dissolved last week by the high court for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government, with 118 of its senior officials banned from the political arena for five years and its former leader currently behind bars awaiting trial on charges of “treason”.
The move was almost universally slammed as a massive democratic backslide in a flurry of statements, but Royal Academy of Cambodia Director Sok Touch, who also enjoys the government rank of secretary of state, had a different take on the development.
“Democracy in Cambodia is completely good, has not disappeared and proceeds smoothly, and it is not restricted like the opposition says,” he told attendees yesterday at a roundtable he organised.
The panel also included officials from the government, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and smaller political parties. Though it was titled the “Democratization process in Cambodia in the absence of the opposition party”, guests were invited weeks before the court decision.
Touch’s professed belief that the decision does not undermine multiparty democracy is in line with the message from Prime Minister Hun Sen over the last month, pointing to minor parties still on the electoral playing field as proof of a continuing vibrant multiparty democracy.
Those parties, however, won no elected seats in the National Assembly in 2013, and the Khmer National Unity Party was the only party aside from the CNRP and CPP to win a single commune chief seat in the June elections.
“Even though there is no CNRP, because one party disappeared, there are many more in the National Assembly and it will go smoothly and grow more,” Touch said.
Six parties are now eligible to receive shares of the CNRP’s 55 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly following controversial amendments to election laws last month. Between them, the parties won just over 6 percent of the popular vote in 2013. The CNRP, by comparison, won 44 percent.
But Touch yesterday not only backed the disbanding of the opposition, he also maintained that it was inconsequential what disenfranchised voters felt. “Cambodians only had importance during the election. After the election, all the voting rights will be handed over to the elected politicians,” he said.
Touch rose to prominence in 2015 after he was asked by the government to conduct a survey of border posts with Vietnam – a politically charged pet issue of the CNRP, criticism of which his survey helped to tame. He was appointed head of the Royal Academy in July, and has entered the political fray head-first since the arrest of CNRP President Kem Sokha in September for “treason”.
That month, he lauded Sokha’s arrest, saying the CNRP leader had been part of a larger revolution that included not only wage strikes and demonstrations after the disputed 2013 national elections, but also the widespread and sustained calls for justice following the 2016 assassination of the beloved political analyst Kem Ley.
“In Cambodia, power was not created because of revolution and forces. It was created by peoples’ votes,” he said at the September roundtable event.
At yesterday’s panel, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan repeated Hun Sen’s assertion that the US was “killing democracy” by cutting aid to the National Election Committee following the CNRP’s dissolution. Justice Ministry spokesman Kim Santepheap, meanwhile, maintained that the “rule of law” justified the dissolution.
Representatives of the royalist Funcinpec party and the League of Democracy Party were also present. Both are potential beneficiaries of the redistribution of the CNRP’s National Assembly seats, though LDP representatives have said it will not accept them.
Funcinpec’s Phan Sethy and LDP’s Chin Thun said they were not concerned that Cambodia’s democracy would suffer in the absence of the CNRP, though Thun was steadfast in rejecting their seats.
“If LDP takes the CNRP’s seats, it is not appropriate because people supporting CNRP are not fit to walk on the same way with LDP. And LDP does not deserve to lead them as well,” Thun said.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said yesterday’s event was the continued working of the government’s “propaganda machine”, where the “dictator’s men” were not hesitant to repeat “lies”.
“The mobilization of pro-government lap dogs like these to bark out the party line is all about Hun Sen and the CPP trying to present a facade of normality over events that have left the international community aghast,” he said in an email.