Government repression undermines legitimacy of Cambodian elections

The assault on civic freedoms in Cambodia has narrowed the democratic space in the country and raises serious questions about the legitimacy of the 29 July elections. Over the last year, monitoring by the CIVICUS Monitor shows how the authorities have outlawed the leading opposition party, shutdown or arbitrarily interfered with media outlets, introduced laws to restrict and silence civil society and jailed its critics.

The government has “effectively transformed the country into a one-party state” by dissolving the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), banning its members for five years and arresting its leader Kem Sokha, drawing widespread condemnation from across the globe.  Many other CNRP members and supporters have also fled the country, fearing arrest and harassment. Calls to boycott the elections has been met threats and sanctions.

“No election can be considered genuine if the main opposition party is denied participation on arbitrary grounds,” said Josef Benedict, Civic Space Research Officer at CIVICUS. “The fact that the only viable opposition in the country was dissolved well before the elections will raise questions locally but also internationally on the legitimacy of the polls and its elected leaders.”

Critical Khmer-language media outlets have been severely restricted, with the closure of 32 radio stations from Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of America (VOA) and Voice of Democracy (VOD). RFA closed its Cambodia bureau citing the repressive media environment, and two of its former reporters have spent nine months in jail on various trumped up charges. In September 2017, the country’s longest-running English-language newspaper, The Cambodia Daily, was forced to shut down after it had failed to meet a deadline to pay an allegedly unpaid tax bill arbitrarily imposed by the government. In early June 2018, the government issued a controversial code of conduct for journalists forbidding reporters from conducting interviews at polling booths or from expressing their “personal opinion”.

“All Cambodians have a right to openly debate and discuss political affairs and the media must be allowed to scrutinise elections promises, as well as inform the public,” said Benedict.

“The attack on the media over the last year has resulted in a chilling environment for journalists and does not bode well for press freedom in Cambodia. The government must cease its arbitrary interference of the media and use of repressive laws and directives to censor and control the media.”

Civil society groups operating in Cambodia have faced government-imposed restrictions on their operations and have been significantly hindered in their work in the lead up to the general election. The Cambodian courts have been main tool used by the authorities to clamp down on civil society groups critical of the state. Other tactics used by the government include the arbitrary arrests and conviction of activists such as land rights defender Tep Vanny and the use of the Law on Associations and Non-Government Organisations (LANGO) which imposes a number of sweeping restrictions on civil society.

“Civil society should be encouraged rather than restricted from playing a role in state affairs including elections. The government must end its arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders and release all activists immediately and unconditionally. It must also repeal the LANGO and other restrictive laws used to intimidate and silence civil society,” said Benedict.

Civic space in Cambodia is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor, a tool that tracks threats to civil society in all countries.

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Josef Benedict