2017 in review: Cambodia’s tumultuous year

CNRP President Kem Sokha waves the Cambodian flag as he leads a party campaign rally in June this year.
CNRP President Kem Sokha waves the Cambodian flag as he leads a party campaign rally in June this year. Heng Chivoan

2017 in review: Cambodia’s tumultuous year

With its promised electoral showdown between the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the insurgent Cambodia National Rescue Party, 2018 would have been the year many observers put their money on for major political fireworks. But thanks to a handful of shocking developments – not least of all the snap eradication of the CNRP by the Supreme Court – 2017 more than held its own. Indeed, the past 12 months have seen their fair share of drama on multiple fronts. What follows is a rundown of the 10 biggest stories to dominate the year gone by.

The final nail in the coffin
A seven-hour trial on November 16 dealt Cambodia’s opposition movement the biggest setback it had seen in years. The Supreme Court, led by senior CPP official Dith Munty, ruled that the primary electoral threat to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s three-decade hold on power had acted against the interests of the Kingdom by allegedly engaging in a so-called “colour revolution”.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party was immediately dismantled and 118 of its senior officials were banned from the political arena for five years. The ruling party also rammed through amendments to the electoral laws, distributing the CNRP’s National Assembly positions among smaller, electorally insignificant parties, however keeping a lion’s share of the commune council positions.

While the verdict was swift, the lead up to the trial saw a persistent months-long campaign by the government to suggest that the opposition had tried to topple the government with the aid of the United States, which came under constant fire from the premier.

All of this rested on a 2013 video of Kem Sokha in Australia claiming that he had received US assistance to plan his political trajectory.

Within hours of the video hitting Fresh News on September 2, around 100 security personnel surrounded former CNRP President Kem Sokha’s residence, arresting him and taking him to a Tbong Khmum prison to face charges of “treason”.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha (left) is escorted by police at his home in Phnom Penh on September 3. AFP

The alleged US involvement in this government fuelled conspiracy has lead to a worsening of bilateral relations, with the Kingdom’s geopolitical swing towards China strongly cemented. The superpower has pulled back funding for the 2018 national elections, a move mirrored by the European Union, with both trading partners threatening further repercussions.

The aftermath of Sokha’s arrest and dissolution of the party has left former CNRP members scrambling overseas for fear of reprisals, hundreds defecting to the CPP under duress and others now living under the yoke of heightened surveillance. Ananth Baliga

A local affair
Prior to its untimely demise, the Cambodia National Rescue Party made history by wrenching more than 400 communes from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in June’s local elections.

Though the CPP managed to hang on to 70 percent of commune chief positions, the CNRP’s gains were the largest ever by an opposition party since local elections began in 2008. The gains were such that as the noose tightened on the CNRP, some observers suggested their performance at the local level had precipitated the crackdown on the party.

Buoyed by a 2012 merger and better-than-expected results in 2013 national elections, the CNRP’s newly minted president, Kem Sokha, set out in May with a lofty objective: winning 60 percent of the vote share. At the time the CPP had an iron grip on commune councils, controlling 97 percent of the country’s commune chiefs.

As the opposition’s campaign ramped up, Prime Minister Hun Sen and other CPP officials deployed violent rhetoric, warning of a return to civil war and even threatening that he wouldn’t hesitate to “eliminate 100 or 200” CNRP supporters if they protested the election results.

In an unusual move, the premier, who had stayed away from active campaigning for years, hit the trail in a massive rally that snaked around Phnom Penh on the final day of campaigning. The ruling party spent an estimated $576,000 on airtime to have the rally broadcast live across eight TV networks.

Prime Minister Hun Sen waves to CPP supporters at his party’s final rally in June. While the ruling party held onto 70 percent of the communes after the June ballot, the CNRP made serious inroads into the CPP’s grassroots stronghold.
Prime Minister Hun Sen waves to CPP supporters at his party’s final rally in June. While the ruling party held onto 70 percent of the communes after the June ballot, the CNRP made serious inroads into the CPP’s grassroots stronghold. Pha Lina

Come election day on June 4, election monitors and observers found only minor electoral violations marring an otherwise smooth voting process, though they pointed to the violent rhetoric as a troubling issue. On June 26, the National Election Committee announced that the CNRP had won a respectable 44 percent of the vote, enough to take 489 commune chief positions and 5,007 council seats to the CPP’s 1,156 and 6,503, respectively.

The minor Khmer National United Party – led by Nhek Bun Chhay, who was arrested shortly after the election – won one commune in Banteay Meanchey province. Ananth Baliga

Scorched earth tactics
The government’s scorched earth tactics were not reserved just for the Cambodia National Rescue Party. Local and international NGOs and media organisations also felt the brunt of the CPP’s efforts to quell dissent ahead of the 2018 national elections.

The Cambodia Daily, a fiercely independent newspaper, was slapped with an “astronomical” $6.3 million tax bill in early August by the Tax Department. A monthlong back and forth between the two sides proceeded to play out in the media, culminating in Prime Minister Hun Sen issuing an ultimatum – pay up or leave.

The Daily decided to shutter the newspaper on September 4, but not before splashing Kem Sokha’s midnight arrest across the front page of its final edition with the headline Descent into outright dictatorship.

Around the same time, the US-funded National Democratic Institute was abruptly shuttered and its staffers given seven days to leave the country, allegedly for not registering with the government under the controversial NGO Law.

However, the shutdown followed multiple, anonymous articles on government mouthpiece Fresh News alleging the group was pushing US foreign policy by aiding in anti-government mass movements across the world.

Staffers walk through the Cambodia Daily’s newsroom this week in front of a blown-up image of the paper’s first edition.
Staffers walk through the Cambodia Daily’s newsroom this week in front of a blown-up image of the paper’s first edition. AFP

Like the Daily, more than a dozen radio stations were shut down for selling airtime to Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, Voice of Democracy and the CNRP. US-funded RFA and VOA were also warned about tax payments and licensing issues, with the former saying it was unviable to continue its in-country operations. It continues to report on the Kingdom from Washington, DC.

In November, two former RFA reporters, Oun Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, were charged with “espionage” for allegedly setting up a radio production studio to send news reports to RFA. The pair and RFA have denied the accusation. If convicted, they could face up to 15 years in prison. Earlier in the year, Australian filmmaker James Ricketson was also arrested and slapped with espionage charges after flying a drone at an opposition campaign rally.

Local NGOs, meanwhile, found themselves under increased scrutiny. In an October letter, the Interior Ministry instructed provincial officials to report any activities carried out by grassroots organisations, and authorised them to stop any planned events if they affected “public order and national security”.

More recently, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights was in the premier’s crosshairs for its links to the CNRP’s Kem Sokha, who founded the NGO, and for allegedly serving foreign interests. But in a surprising turn, the NGO was allowed to continue its operations in Cambodia following a Ministry of Interior investigation into the matter. Ananth Baliga

‘Fake news’ and Fresh News
The meteoric rise of online media source Fresh News continued in 2017, with observers and analysts increasingly seeing the outlet as a propaganda machine for the ruling party.

Once described by government spokesman Phay Siphan as “a space for the government to share the news”, Fresh News has enjoyed unparalleled access to government officials and documents.

Though it continues to maintain its independence, experts say Fresh News exhibits classic characteristics of authoritarian, state-controlled media.

Anonymous op-eds slamming the opposition party became another hallmark of the news source, with the outlet leading a campaign against opposition leader Kem Sokha, repeatedly accusing him of treason based on convoluted and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories and purported “leaks”.

The articles, many of which were republished verbatim from anonymous Facebook pages, alleged the involvement of everyone from freelance journalists, to the CIA, to the ruling party of Taiwan.

One of those accused, journalist Geoffrey Cain, called Fresh News a “fake news operation” being deployed as pretext for legal action against the opposition.

Sokha was subsequently charged with treason after being arrested in a midnight raid live-streamed by Fresh News.

Another anonymous post, which was also republished in the nominally independent Khmer Times, personally accused US senators John McCain and Ted Cruz of attempting to overthrow the government.

Fresh News, meanwhile, has also seemingly moved into the field of policy drafting, once suggesting that the CNRP’s National Assembly seats should be redistributed to minor parties after its dissolution. The suggestion became law, with the opposition’s seats split up according to Fresh News’s formula.

The CEO of Fresh News, Lim Cheavutha, has long denied any formal connection to the ruling party, instead claiming the news source simply publishes “interesting information” and comparing the outlet to Wikileaks.

It was also the year of leaks, which frequently made their way to reporters’ inboxes and onto social media, with the main players two seemingly opposing leakers – one from each major party – trying to outdo the other. Among the leaks were alleged text messages between the premier and social media celebrity Thy Sovantha; a purported internal CPP voter survey in which researchers find the CNRP to be a credible threat; and leaked audio messages from opposition officials. Andrew Nachemson

Drug wars
Cambodia has never been known for its progressive drug policies, but 2017 will go down as the year the government exponentially escalated its already-largely punitive approach to enforcing drug laws.

A meeting was held in October of 2016 between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been waging a brutal drug war at home, was a sign of things to come, with Hun Sen saying afterwards that “pressing” problems with drug use and trafficking need to be solved.

“We will not use the measures of some countries that allowed the savage killing [of drug offenders], but we will not pardon the drug criminals either,” he said at the time.

The premier followed through on that promise, launching a drug crackdown that began on the first day of 2017 and as of December 28 had resulted in nearly 18,000 arrests.

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Anti-drug police officials torch a pile of narcotics during a destruction ceremony to mark the UN’s International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking in June. Pha Lina

While the crackdown has not included the grisly assassinations of alleged drug dealers and users that have taken place in the Philippines, there were accusations of civil and human rights violations – including police bribery and incarceration in increasingly overcrowded prisons and rehabilitation centres.

As of this year, the government has set up a community-based treatment centre in every province for low-level offenders, but the vast majority of those arrested continue to end up in rehab centres whose conditions have been decried by rights organisations in the past.

The Ministry of Interior says it will meet in the new year to decide whether or not the crackdown will continue. James Reddick

Timber trade rolls on
Minister of Environment Say Samal claimed that the government had successfully put a stop to large-scale illegal logging in the Kingdom this year – but investigative reporting from The Post and numerous NGOs flatly contradicted him, particularly in Ratanakkiri province.

One report from the Environmental Investigation Agency showed that hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of Cambodian timber was still flowing from Ratanakkiri to Vietnam despite a ban on the practice.

Vietnamese loggers and traders also told investigators they paid millions in bribes to Cambodian officials to grease the skids. In response, ministry officials alternated between denying the reports and promising investigations that quickly fizzled.

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A heavy truck carries a load of illegal timber through the forest near the Vietnam border. Photo supplied

Satellite imagery released in October, meanwhile, showed Cambodian forests were cleared faster last year than the year before, despite the existence of a Military Police anti-logging task force. The data was fiercely refuted by Samal, who characterised the reports as politically motivated and provided his own figures. However, analysts said the government appeared to be incorrectly counting plantations as forest cover.

“The protection of the forest is only on paper,” prize-winning environmental activist Ouch Leng said in August. “But timber traders and okhnas [tycoons] are still doing their activities.” Daphne Chen

Hopeless and ‘stateless’
This year the Interior Ministry set out in earnest to reform its much-maligned immigration policies, starting by revoking “irregular” documents from thousands of ethnic Vietnamese – a move international observers have decried as a major human rights violation.

In April of this year, Interior Minister Sar Kheng announced that the Immigration Department would begin reviewing and revoking passports, identity cards, family books and other identity documents. In October, the number of individuals to be affected was estimated at 70,000, with officials openly admitting the majority were ethnically Vietnamese, a traditionally marginalised group in Cambodia.

Vietnamese in Cambodia have suffered a history of ethnically motivated persecution, with the group targeted for genocide under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. In recent years, the group has struggled to access state services despite many having lived in Cambodia for generations. It has also frequently been the target of heated anti-Vietnamese rhetoric used by the now-dissolved opposition CNRP to galvanise supporters.

Two ethnically Vietnamese women sort their documents as officials conducted an immigration crackdown in Kampong Chhnang province.
Two ethnically Vietnamese women sort their documents as officials conducted an immigration crackdown in Kampong Chhnang province. Heng Chivoan

The policy was first rolled out in the riverboat communities of Kampong Chhnang in November. Ethnic Vietnamese living there told The Post that they had no other form of documentation, with the revocation effectively rendering them stateless.

Phil Robertson with Human Rights Watch called the policy “disastrous” and said it was “a blatant violation of the [1954 United Nations] Statelessness Convention”. The policy continues to be implemented nationwide, with similar stories coming out of ethnic Vietnamese communities in Phnom Penh. Andrew Nachemson

Migrants in limbo
When the Thai government passed a new law imposing hefty fines and jail time on undocumented migrant workers, it prompted an exodus of thousands of Cambodians in June and July. For weeks trucks came in almost every hour transporting Cambodians back to the Kingdom.

Faced with a huge backlash from civil society, workers, employers and unions, the Thai government granted a grace period until the end of 2017. But the process for workers to become documented is lengthy and costly, and many migrants at the Thai border told The Post they will have to either stay in Cambodia unemployed or illegally return to Thailand to make a living.

Some of the returning migrants said that the new regulation pushed them further into debt, with employers arranging costly agencies to provide them with passports and asking migrants to pay up front or deduct it from their salaries for months to come.

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Workers step out of a Thai truck packed with Cambodian migrants in Poipet. Sahiba Chawdhary

The new law also split up families who previously lived together in Thailand and could now only afford to either get documents for some family members, or to send children home while parents stayed behind to work.

To alleviate the effects, the Cambodian Ministry of Labour in October set up offices in Thailand to provide travel documents to Cambodians, but many thousands still remain undocumented. Estimates of undocumented Cambodian migrants go up to 500,000, and it remains unclear how many have left the country permanently or now have all documents.

According to local Thai media reports, the Thai Ministry of Labour announced on Friday it will extend the grace period for migrants until June. Leonie Kijewski

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Famed Khmer architect Vann Molyvann looks over books, plans and projects at his house in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in January, 2014. He died aged 90 in September. Scott Howes

In memoriam
The Kingdom lost some of its most creative minds and influential figures in 2017. Visionary architect Vann Molyvann, who designed some of modern Cambodia’s most significant landmarks, passed away at 90 in September.

Molyvann was the master behind the iconic Independence Monument, the Olympic Stadium and the fan-like Chaktomuk Theatre, all of which blended traditional Khmer motifs with modernism, and took their inspiration from the earthly elements.

He was mourned across the nation and remembered for his structural creations, which were emblematic of Cambodia’s “golden era” in the 1960s.

The nation also bid farewell to a man who shaped Cambodia’s political infrastructure – the formidable Sok An, deputy prime minister and right-hand man to Prime Minister Hun Sen. Sok An, who died at 66 in China in March after a long illness, controlled so many state institutions that he was often compared to a many-armed Hindu god. His political proximity to the premier was cemented in the marriage of his son to Hun Sen’s daughter.

With a portfolio packed full of roles at administrative bodies, Sok An was a symbol of Cambodia’s centralisation of power, though his responsibilities were redistributed significantly following the opposition’s near-upset in the 2013 elections.

Cambodia also mourned the loss of famed artists. Suon San, one of the Kingdom’s most brilliant masters of the chapei – a traditional two-stringed guitar – passed away in June. Yit Sarin, the first male dancer in Cambodia’s Royal Ballet and the last surviving custodian of the practice of the Khmer masked theatre dance known as Lakhon Khol, died in March at 91.

Former Royal Ballet dancer, singer and teacher Sin Samadeukcho also passed away in December, aged 78. And celebrated American historian Michael Vickery was also bid farewell at a ceremony in Battambang province after his death in July at the age of 86. Erin Handley

National pride
In a glimmer of good news in an otherwise tumultuous year, Unesco in July recognised as a World Heritage Site the Sambor Prei Kuk archaeological site, a cluster of ancient brick temples scattered throughout the forest in Kampong Thom province.

The archaeological site Sambor Prei Kuk in Kampong Thom province, which was listed as a World Heritage Site by Unesco earlier this year.
The archaeological site Sambor Prei Kuk in Kampong Thom province, which was listed as a World Heritage Site by Unesco earlier this year. Heng Chivoan

Built by Isanavarnam I, King of the Chenla Empire, the seventh-century ruins predate the Angkorian period. Among the ruins is the Kda Ouk Temple, which has attracted interest and debate over a series of carvings that appear to depict foreigners to the Kingdom, raising questions about the extent of trade and cultural interaction at the time.

The site is thought to be the location of Ishanapura, once the capital of the Chenla Empire. Historians and archaeologists note that the decorations and styles found in Sambor Prei Kuk mark the beginning of a Khmer culture distinct from the Indian aesthetic that had dominated beforehand.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly invoked Unesco’s recognition as an example of the country’s peace and stability, and declared July 10 a national holiday in honour of the listing of both Sambor Prei Kuk and Preah Vihear Temple, which was listed in 2008. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

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