The state of democracy in Cambodia has declined to the point where it is now led by an outright “authoritarian” regime, according to the latest Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The Democracy Index 2017, released yesterday, ranked Cambodia 124th out of 167 countries, sliding 12 places south of its 2016 standing.
The latest report also dropped Cambodia from a “hybrid regime” to an “authoritarian” one, due to the elimination of the Cambodia National Rescue Party – the ruling party’s only real competitor in the upcoming national elections in July.
“Cambodia scored poorly in electoral process and pluralism following the forced dissolution of the main opposition party in November 2017, which turned the country into a de facto one-party state,” the report read.
The slide into the “authoritarian” category came as little surprise to some observers. Over the past year, leading opposition figures, environmental activists and journalists have been jailed on contentious charges, forcing politicians into exile and leaving NGOs on tenterhooks. News outlets, too, have been shuttered in the shrinking democratic space.
Political analyst Meas Nee said the report reflected the international outcry to the “current worsening of Cambodia’s political situation”.
“What happened over the past two years cannot be hidden from the public,” he said.
“The government claims it’s still on the right track, but in the eyes of the Cambodian people, particularly those who support the opposition . . . it’s hard for the government to hide the truth.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan, however, said the verdict in the report was “completely different from the reality” and stressed the Supreme Court, not the government per se, had shuttered the CNRP. The court also banned 118 opposition figures from political activities for five years, despite there being no apparent legal basis for barring individuals from politics.
Critics have repeatedly pointed out that the line between government and the judiciary is often blurred, or nonexistent. And in the lead-up to the court’s decision the government made a series of amendments to election laws directly aimed at redistributing power following the dissolution.
Siphan added the index authors were “stupid people” with an “agenda” against Cambodia, which had “no political conflict”.
“I do not care what they say. Who cares? Everybody enjoys living in Cambodia. We have peace, everyone has the right to criticise Hun Sen,” he said.
“Democracy and pluralism are still ongoing; I do not see any decline . . . Democracy has to go hand in hand with rule of law,” he said, adding the CNRP did not respect the law because they did not accept the 2013 election result, citing voting irregularities.
United Nations Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith, in her last visit to Cambodia, said the country was adhering more to “rule by law” – in which legislation is used as a cudgel – and in a Rule of Law Index released yesterday, Cambodia ranked almost rock bottom, at 112 out of 113 countries, below Afghanistan and only ahead of Venezuela.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson yesterday said that Cambodia’s ruling party “manufactured facts” to achieve political outcomes through the court and to undermine democracy.
“The government lives in its own politically twisted version of reality, where ‘rule of law’ means searching around in the criminal code for an offense that can be made to fit the situation, and proceeding to trial without evidence in front of kangaroo courts that are among the worst in the region,” he said in an email.
Robertson called for the government to end the ban on the CNRP members and “let the people decide who will lead”.
“The sunshine and transparency brought by a truly free and fair election will be the best antiseptic for the rot that has dominated Cambodian governance,” he added.
Jonathan Sutton, a researcher on government repression in Southeast Asia at the University of Otago in New Zealand, suggested Cambodia had actually been authoritarian since the United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia years in the early 1990s.
“The main difference now is that the crackdown has been too heavy handed for the international community to ignore,” he said in an email. “It’s not so much that Cambodia’s democracy has declined, it’s that the real underlying authoritarian power has been reveal[ed] far more publicly than in the past.”
With Norway at the top of yesterday’s Democracy Index and North Korea at the bottom, Cambodia is nestled between Comoros and Angola. Regionally, Cambodia’s democracy was deemed worse than in the Philippines, Malaysia, Pakistan and Myanmar, but better than China, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Laos.
The index also includes, for the first time, a Media Freedom count, because “freedom of speech is the most important freedom of all and a prerequisite for establishing a healthy democracy”, according to the report.
Cambodia was ranked 132nd in this category globally, along with Chad, Guinea, Oman, Qatar, Singapore and Swaziland. It labels Cambodia’s media as “unfree”.