A scathing report by a group of ASEAN parliamentarians yesterday called recent changes to the Law on Political Parties and judicial harassment of opposition lawmakers part of a “systematic dismantling of democracy”, creating a “dark shadow” over Cambodian society ahead of June commune elections.
Titled Death Knell for Democracy, the report describes the sustained use of a partisan judiciary and National Assembly by the government in a bid to hobble the opposition in the wake of the “game changer” 2013 election, which saw a unified opposition make unprecedented gains.
Charles Santiago, chair of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said the continued targeting of the opposition and Hun Sen’s apparent desire to retain power at any cost had created an environment that could call into question the legitimacy of the June ballot.
“The fear element is of extreme concern – if people are voting or not voting – based on fear, then that’s not a real contest,” he said, via email.
The report decries legally dubious cases brought against former Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy, current party President Kem Sokha and parliamentarians Um Sam An, Thak Lany and Hong Sok Hour, while also arguing that opposition figures have a legitimate reason to fear for their physical safety as well.
The savage October 2015 beating of CNRP lawmakers Kong Saphea and Nhay Chamroeun by members of Hun Sen’s Personal Bodyguard Unit since promoted following their release from prison had a far-reaching impact on other opposition MPs.
Ongoing legal concerns were further compounded by widely criticised recent amendments to the Law on Political Parties, which allow for the dissolution of parties that have leaders with criminal convictions – something that has put opposition MPs in a “tough position”, Santiago added.
“The new law and other attacks completely undermine their ability to do their jobs, serve the people, and focus on the future,” he said. Among the report’s numerous recommendations, it calls for clarification on procedures used to lift parliamentary immunity, assurances for the physical safety of parliamentarians and a repeal of the amendments to the Law on Political Parties.
CNRP Vice President Mu Sochua, herself a member of APHR, said the report was spot-on in assessing the government’s multi-pronged attack on the party, which could be detrimental in the June commune elections.
“This has been their strategy. The goal has always been to weaken the opposition and silence it at all costs,” she said.
Aside from the legal and physical threats, Sochua said the recent barrage of leaked recordings of private phone conversations of party officials and increased surveillance was only exacerbating their inability to function.
“It is difficult when we are hacked and cannot communicate with our own colleagues,” she said. “Also, no matter how small and remote the village we visit, we are always followed.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan, however, dismissed the report’s criticism of the judiciary – which in 2015 was ripped by the International Bar Association as being ridden with corruption and government influence – saying the fair application of the law was the only goal of the Kingdom’s courts, not the oppression of a particular party.
Eysan questioned why APHR would even bring up the 2015 beating of two lawmakers, calling it an “accident” that “happened years ago”, and took exception to the criticism of recent legislation changes.
“The amendment of the Law on Political Parties was not done to satisfy the critics,” he said.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson, speaking at the release of the report, said the ruling CPP’s electoral near-defeat in 2013 and the subsequent mass demonstrations made Prime Minister Hun Sen reluctant to rely solely on a message of development, prompting him instead to retreat to tried and tested methods.
“I think that the lesson Hun Sen took from the 2013 elections is that it is better to be feared than loved,” he said. “And if you don’t like [him], to make sure there are no other choices.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY LAY SAMEAN