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An appalling and utterly predictable ruling in Cambodia

On March 3, Cambodia’s leading opposition figure, Kem Sokha, was found guilty of treason and sentenced to 27 years, prompting an international outcry. It is the latest in a string of actions taken ahead of Cambodia‘s 23 July elections and the imminent transition of power from Hun Sen to his son Hun Manet. It was an appalling and utterly predictable decision.

The 70-year-old Hun Sen, Southeast Asia’s longest serving leader having come to power in 1985, has laid the foundations within the ruling Cambodian People’s party for the succession. Lt Gen Hun Manet has been gradually groomed for the job, currently serving as the deputy army chief. But Hun Sen is increasingly shrill and dictatorial.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Kem Sokha, who has been the single-most important opposition figure since the UNTAC era in the early 1990s.

He served in parliament from 1993-2002, when he founded the independent Cambodian Center for Human Rights. He returned to politics from 2005 to 2012, when the Human Rights Party merged with Sam Rainsy’s Candlelight Party, to become the Cambodian National Rescue Party.

In 2013, the CNRP won 55 of 123 seats, 45 percent, the strongest showing of the opposition. Hun Sen was infuriated at the strong showing that year and the mass protests that rocked the capital demanding an independent investigation into suspicions of voter fraud.

In 2014, the CNRP continued to challenge the CPP in commune-level elections. Hun Sen became obsessed with dismantling the opposition.

Sam Rainsy went into self-imposed exile in 2015, after his conviction for slander. In July 2016, Kem Ley, one of the leading political commentators, was gunned down, prompting mass protests.

Sokha was arrested in 2017 and was charged with colluding with the United States Embassy to overthrow Hun Sen based on a video-taped talk he gave in Australia in 2013. No evidence was ever provided.

In 2017, Hun Sen made very clear his intention to wield the military “to crack down on any movement to overthrow and undermine the country”, while at the same time warning journalists to “prepare their coffins” if “There is an attempt to destroy the Hun family.”

The only credible opposition

Ahead of the 2018 election, the government continued its assault. In September 2017, the government forced the Cambodia Daily to close after it failed to pay an astronomical $6.3 million tax bill. There was no attempt to resolve the tax dispute.

In November 2017, the Supreme Court, whose chief justice sat on the CPP’s executive committee, voted to dissolve the CNRP. Dozens of CNRP members were arrested.

The only credible opposition was decimated and the Cambodian People’s Party won all 125 parliamentary seats in the 2018 election.

Kem’s three-year trial was neither free nor fair, and was plagued by judicial shortcomings Including the intimidation of defense witnesses. The only real evidence surrounding the collusion was a three minute video in which he thanked the US government for supporting him and the political opposition.

He will remain under house arrest until his appeal is adjudicated, though that is a foregone conclusion; he will have no outside contact, and apparently his internet access has already been cut. His civil and political rights—including the right to vote, and stand in elections–were suspended.

The conviction of opposition figures and shuttering of the media is completely unnecessary. The Cambodian People’s Party is poised to win by a landslide, given the power of incumbency, the culture of vote buying, and political and legal intimidation of opposition figures, most of whom are in exile. But nothing is being left to chance.

The opposition is much weaker than it was in 2018. In last June’s commune election, the Candlelight Party won only 19 percent of the vote. When the Candlelight Party’s leader Son Chhay accused the CPP and election commission of stealing votes, they sued him for defamation; which he lost and then lost on appeal in December 2022. A Supreme Court ruling awarded the CPP and election commission $1 million in damages, in an attempt to bankrupt the opposition.

In June 2022, a Cambodian Court convicted 51 opposition figures for incitement and conspiracy. In October, Hun Sen threatened to dissolve the Candlelight Party.

In December 2022, a court sentenced 36 members of the banned CNRP, all but three of whom are in exile, between 5-7 years, fearful that they were planning to return to the country ahead of elections.

In January 2023, authorities arrested Thach Setha, the Candlelight Party’s vice president for writing bad checks, though they were never signed or deposited.

That month he threatened law suits and physical attacks against anyone who leveled charges of voter fraud against the CPP. "What do you think? I want to ask you. There are two choices, one is using the law, the other is using a stick [violence]. Which one do you take?”

Days later when he was accused of threatening the opposition, he again threatened to dispatch a violent mob to attack anyone leveling those accusations.

Leaving Nothing to Chance

It got even more surreal in late January when the CPP went forward to announce the nomination of Hun Sen for a fifth term so that he could save the country from “extremist politics and activities.”

The following month, the government shuttered the Voice of Democracy, the last free media, after Hun Sen spuriously accused it of slandering him and his son in a 9 February article about the $100,000 in official assistance to earthquake victims in Turkey.

According to Amnesty International, there are at least 39 members of the opposition who are political prisoners at present.

This past week Hun Sen paranoia went into overdrive as he warned of a “color revolution” and accused the CIA of sending spies to foment political instability.

But the government has moved on rank and file supporters too. In the clearest sign of voter intimidation, CPP goons have moved to take away the poverty cards of Candlelight party members that entitle people to subsidized food provisions.

Why are these gratuitous threats and attacks escalating now? Yes, in part it is the derangement of a dictator of 38 years.

In part they represent an understanding that though life has changed for the population in Phnom Penh, the country remains poor. While the poverty rate has been cut in half in the past decade, it’s still at 18 percent. Per capita income in the still overwhelmingly agrarian country is only $4,500, using purchasing power parity. 65 percent of the nearly 15 million people are under the age of 30.

But they also suggest an insecurity on the part of Hun Manet, who may not be so confident that he enjoys full CPP support.

There are other factions of the party that saw paths to power for themselves or family members. Not everyone supports Hun Manet and wants to see the country as a dynastic kleptocracy or China’s vassal state.

And with all the levers of power in his hand, the army, the police, the judiciary, no one is willing to challenge the strongman, even as he slips deeper into his paranoia and delusions.

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