Rights crushed as election looms

Members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces march into a MC-130P Combat Shadow here Feb. 22 for the first-ever combined jump between U.S. and RCAF soldiers. More than 90 U.S. and RCAF soldiers participated in the friendship jump. U.S. Army Special Forces spent five weeks training the fledgling RCAF National Counter-Terrorism Special Forces during a combined training exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Aaron Cram)

Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party are looking to retain power in next year’s general election and the inevitable consequence is the crushing of civil society groups and the arrest of opposition leaders. Another impact is the further unraveling of the complex relationship with the US. 

Mu Sochua, the deputy leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), claims the government is engaging in “psychological warfare” against its adversaries.

“Democracy is in danger, my life is in danger,” she told the Financial Times at the CNRP headquarters. “I could go to jail any day.”

Her party boss, Kem Sokha, was arrested this month and charged with treason for plotting to stage a revolution with US help. He is being held in a remote prison near the border with Vietnam.

The CNRP took seats from the ruling party in recent local elections and Hun Sen has reacted to the increasing challenge with the iron fist.

Hun Sen has ruled the country since the mid-1980s and this month said he was eyeing another decade in power.

A former Khmer Rouge cadre, Hun Sen, 65, fled Cambodia in 1977 and returned with the Vietnamese military during that country’s war against the savage regime in 1979. He was first appointed foreign minister and was named prime minister in the Vietnamese-supported government in 1985.

The US-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI), which monitored elections and was involved with political organising, has been forced out of Cambodia this month after operating in the country since the early 1990s. Radio stations carrying the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia have also been stopped from broadcasting.

The arrival of isolationist Donald Trump and growing dominance of China, which has a quasi-colonial grip on Cambodia, has weakened anyone challenging Hun Sen.

In a spectacular own goal, Washington still demands US$500 million from Phnom Penh for debts incurred by the US puppet leader, Lon Nol, before he was deposed by the barbaric Khmer Rouge. As the US Air Force destroyed the agricultural land east of Phnom Penh in a failed attempt to disrupt Viet Kong supply lines, the capital flooded with displaced farmers and the nation starved. The US authorities delivered food and supplies but is still demanding payment, ignoring the fact that it was responsible for creating the crisis.

Cambodian leaders and their people have called the debt “dirty” and “blood-stained”.

Amid Hun Sen’s busy month of crackdowns, the tiny, independent Cambodia Daily was closed after the authorities demanded US$6.3 million in unpaid tax. “Descent into outright dictatorship” was its final headline.

“Mr Hun Sen, as part of his strategy, is eliminating the heads of opposition, as many people as high up as possible, by putting out so-called cases, taking us to court,” Mu Sochua argues.

Hun Sen is reportedly hoping to use Cambodia’s corrupt courts to prosecute opposition figures he blames for protests in 2013 that led to four deaths. Veteran opposition figure Sam Rainsy fled the country in 2015 to avoid two years in jail for defamation over allegedly politicised allegations.

“It would have been unthinkable to kick out the NDI and close the Cambodia Daily five years ago,” argues Ou Virak of the Future Forum think tank. “They would have pushed back, and the government would have caved.”

Hun Sen has stoked anti-American feeling, accusing the US embassy of acting as “mastermind” of Kem Sokha’s “treasonous plot”.

US ambassador William Heidt said the allegations of a conspiracy were “made without a shred of serious or credible evidence”. It seems US influence has evaporated in Phnom Penh.

Bilateral ties are being further strained by US efforts to deport Cambodian nationals with convictions. Critics say most of the deportees arrived in the US as child refugees after fleeing the Khmer Rouge and have only lived in the US and do not speak Khmer or have relatives in Cambodia.

The US has suspended certain visas for Foreign Ministry staff due to Phnom Penh’s unwillingness to take back the American-Cambodians that Washington wants to deport.

“Separating father and child, and wife and husband is not virtuous and very immoral,” Hun Sen said on Friday. “We don’t expect the US to have no virtue . . . when it’s always talking about morality and human rights.”

Hun Sen added that he may reopen a programme to find and repatriate the bones of US troops who died in the 1970s if Washington scrapped the visa ban.

“If you provide visas for me, I will provide the cooperation to look for bones for you,” he said on Friday, using a Khmer word for “bones” instead of a more gentile term for “bodies”. “I do not want to have the 1964 and 1965 incidents repeated,” Hun Sen added, referring to violent protests at the US embassy. The reference was seen as a poorly disguised threat of state-sponsored violence.

Hun Sen has threatened to dissolve the CNRP if it does not name a new leader, while Siphan Phay, a government spokesman, said there would be no need to shut down the feeble opposition party.

“We do not need to shut it down because they fail all the time,” the spokesman said.

It is easy to see why other figures are unwilling to step up to the leadership given the fate of previous party leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha.

Maybe Cambodia’s politics will settle down when the apparently unwelcome distraction of the 2018 election has been successfully navigated by Hun Sen and his corrupt establishment.

Members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces enter a US MC-130P plane. Joint US-Cambodian training is fast becoming a thing of the past. Picture credit: US Air Force