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Cambodia on a ‘downward trend’, according to Freedom House

Former opposition leader Kem Sokha is escorted by police following his midnight arrest in Phnom Penh in September. AFP
Former opposition leader Kem Sokha is escorted by police following his midnight arrest in Phnom Penh in September. AFP

Cambodia on a ‘downward trend’, according to Freedom House

The American NGO Freedom House has singled out Cambodia as being on a "downward trend" in terms of liberties, but despite an ongoing political crackdown that has drawn international condemnation, Cambodia’s 2017 score by the organisation remained almost unchanged from last year.

The Kingdom, which has been rated “not free” every year since the ratings began in 1995, earned an aggregate score of 30 out of 100 (with 100 representing "most free") – just a one-point drop from its score in 2016.

The index, released today, rated Cambodia's press "not free", and its internet only "partly free", just as it did in 2016.

Ratings for civil liberties and political rights also remained consistent, at 5 out of 7 and 6 out of 7, respectively, with a score 7 representing “least free”.

Cambodia, which was ranked 158 out of 208 countries and territories by aggregate score, was among a handful of countries singled out for following a “downward trend”.

“Cambodia received a downward trend arrow due to a crackdown on the political opposition, including the dissolution of the main opposition party and treason charges against its leader,” reads a summary of Cambodia’s country report, a full version of which will be published in the future.

Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha was arrested in September and charged with "treason" for telling supporters in 2013 that he had received advice from the US. His party – the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the only viable competitor to the long-ruling Cambodian People's Party – was dissolved at the government's behest on the grounds it was fomenting a foreign-backed "revolution". Little evidence was presented to substantiate the accusation, and the international community has since publicly questioned the legitimacy of this year's scheduled national elections.

“Repressive regimes in Asia continued to consolidate their power in 2017,” wrote Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz in the report, going on to put a spotlight on Cambodia for Prime Minister Hun Sen's "decisive crackdown on the country’s beleaguered opposition”.

The report also condemned a recent crackdown on the free press that saw the Cambodia Daily newspaper and numerous independent radio stations shut down.

Lee Morgenbesser, an expert on authoritarian regimes, said Cambodia was “extremely lucky” not to be rated even more harshly.

“Frankly, I am shocked that the jailing of the main opposition leader, muzzling of 15 radio stations, expelling of two civil society organizations and shutting down the most independent newspaper in the country did not warrant any change for Freedom House,” he wrote via email.

“It begs the question of what exactly it takes to be put in the category of Laos and Vietnam. I suspect (and expect) a one-party national election will do the trick,” he added, referring to this year's upcoming ballot.

However, government spokesman Phay Siphan today dismissed the report as “not accurate”.

“Cambodia decides what to protect – our own identity, our own sovereignty," he said, claiming recent moves by the government had been done in the interest of the people.

Cambodia wasn’t the only country called out in the report, titled “Democracy in Crisis”, with the US-government funded organisation also turning its guns on the administration of US President Donald Trump.

“Political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017,” the report states, noting America’s “withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom”.

The US also saw a drop in its score on political rights, with the report citing Russian interference in the election and “violations of basic ethical standards” by the Trump administration.

See more of the report's findings here.

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