Preventing the opposition from meaningfully participating in this election has once again ensured the landslide victory for the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). An unprecedented climate of fear has silenced civil society.
Cambodia held its national election on July 23, 2023, the seventh since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991 which was meant to end civil war and bring in a democratic system of governance. In an unsurprising result, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 120 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly — an extension of its hold on political power.
The 2023 national election had no credible opposition to the CPP. The Candlelight Party — a successor of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) — was disqualified from registering for the election over a single absent document by the National Election Committee.
In 2017, the CNRP, which at the time had 55 seats in the National Assembly and had come close to beating the CPP in 2013, was dissolved by the Supreme Court for allegedly toppling the government. The dissolution meant there was again no credible opposition at the 2018 national election, where the CPP had a clean sweep of all 125 seats.
The lack of a competitive election has seen the CPP and Prime Minister Hun Sen strengthen their grasp on power, especially with a much-expected transition in August 2023 to Hun Manet, the prime minister’s eldest son, who will lead a younger generation of ministers without much check and balance.
The path to where Cambodia is today has been the result of actions put in place by the prime minister and the ruling party — some more recent, whereas others have been in place for years.
Laying the Grounds for 2023
The dissolution of the CNRP in 2017 marked the start of an ongoing crackdown that has seen the jailing of opposition figures, mass trials on trumped-up charges, and attacks on civil society and the media, under the disguise of the enforcement of laws
As a pretext to dissolve the CNRP, the party’s then-president Kem Sokha was arrested in a midnight raid on his house in Phnom Penh. He was sent to prison, released on bail, and after a prolonged trial convicted of treason and sentenced to 27 years in prison. He is now serving a prison sentence under house arrest in Phnom Penh.
Exiled CNRP leader Sam Rainsy attempted to return to the country in November 2019, calling on supporters to join him. He was not able to return to Cambodia because the government barred all ASEAN countries from allowing him to board a flight to Cambodia.
Any attempts to support Rainsy’s return or even welcome him at the border city of Poipet resulted in dozens of opposition supporters being charged with criminal conduct. Courts have conducted at least 5 mass trials since 2019, convicting dozens of people at one go for conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to disrupt social order. Some of those convicted had only posted their support of Rainsy’s plan to return on social media but were given prison sentences.
Before the dissolution of the CNRP, prominent and trusted independent media outlets, including Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of America (VOA), and the Cambodia Daily were either shut down or taken off the air between August and September 2017. Similarly, the Voice of Democracy was shut down in February 2023, months before the election. Days before the July election, the government also asked internet service providers to block online access to two already banished Khmer language media websites, the Cambodia Daily and Radio Free Asia, and one local database platform, Kamnotra.
This has forced any independent media outlet – and civil society, politicians, or dissenting voices — to adapt to using social media, especially Facebook, to reach their audiences and provide critical or analytical information.
Return of Public Apologies, Defections
As the police continue to arrest activists, civil society members, and opposition supporters, some people who fear arrest or prosecution have gone into hiding or sought refuge in other countries. Some were arrested even in Thailand. For example, as reported by CamboJa News, Thol Samnang, a Candlelight Party member, was arrested in Thailand for posting provocative anti-CPP messages on Facebook, however, he was not repatriated. In another example, Thai authorities have arrested and deported to Cambodia two activists from the banned political opposition.
Through all this, the government has aggressively employed a previously used tactic to break dissent. While claiming that the judiciary is independent and that the government stands by judicial decisions, people in hiding or detention have been encouraged to make public apologies and confess to alleged crimes to get out of prison or have criminal charges dropped against them.
Opposition officials and activists under arrest, imprisoned, or on the run have been released or forgiven after they made these public pronouncements admitting they were wrong or were tricked by opposition leaders overseas to commit the alleged crimes. These apologies are normally directed at the prime minister and often include a pledge to work for the government. Many opposition members and activists have been given plush government positions but have also had to join the CPP, in exchange for their freedom.
This is not a new phenomenon and has been used during previous elections as well, but the scale and width of dissenting voices forced to make these public apologies is much higher than in recent years.
Civil Society In Fear
Another mechanism of control has been the harassment and arrest of Cambodians working at civil society organizations, especially those highlighting human rights abuses.
Non-government organizations in Cambodia have been at the forefront of calling for the government to remedy rights violations. Their operations started with the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991, but there has been a concerted campaign in the last decade to group them as a political force allied with opposition parties, resulting in extremely high pressure.
An unprecedented climate of fear has silenced civil society organizations and non-government organizations. Civil society’s demands that the government respect human rights and adhere to democratic principles have largely gone unheard but, at the same time, have been loud enough to invite attacks from those in power.
This has left civil society groups in a state of shock or confusion and operating with increasing fear of enhanced repression. This, sadly, has had a compounding effect on their ability to help Cambodians affected by human rights violations.
‘Peace’ At All Costs
The prime minister has positioned himself as the engineer of ‘peace building’ in Cambodia, following his win-win policy that aimed to integrate warring factions into the mainstream in the 1990s. And by 1998, remnants of former Khmer Rouge cadres had laid down their arms. Since then, the narrative among the ruling party has been that the removal of the CPP or the prime minister would lead to chaos and a return to civil unrest.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has even attributed steady economic growth for the past decade — at around seven percent GDP growth excluding the Covid-19 years — to the ‘peace’ he has achieved in the country. Even during government crackdowns against the political opposition or detractors, the ruling party and the prime minister’s supporters have justified these actions to maintain this peace. It is common to see signs and posters on government buildings, private establishments, and public spaces with the slogan “Thank You, Peace.”
A counterargument to the narrative that ‘peace in Cambodia is only the absence of war’ would be that ‘real peace should be more than just the absence of war.’ This argument holds up if one looks at the violation of human rights and the lack of an independent judiciary to deliver justice and a genuine rule of law. However, the prime minister has been defiant that his definition of peace is justified.
No Election Boycott or Ballot Destruction
With the election approaching, the Candlelight Party was not allowed to register for the election. This elicited calls from opposition leaders, especially those living overseas, for a boycott of the election or for voters to spoil their ballots. In 2018, after a similar boycott call, there were more official spoiled ballots than every other party’s individual vote share, excluding the CPP.
Also, a mid-election amendment to election laws in June made it illegal for people to affect the electoral process through incitement, with authorities interpreting this as either a call for a boycott or for voters to spoil their ballot and publicize it.
Unhappy with the boycott campaign, the parliament in June included another amendment to election laws that disqualifies any potential election candidate from running for office if they did not vote in prior elections. The quick and uncontested changes to election laws in the middle of an ongoing election is yet another example of the CPP’s imposing of a de facto one-party system. The rules of the game can be changed in the midst of a game.
Preventing the opposition from meaningfully participating in this election has once again ensured the landslide victory. The result was very much a formality and along expected lines.
Preliminary result shows CPP with 120 seats in the National Assembly, while Funcinpec will take the remaining five seats, returning the lower house to a multi-party body. Prime Minister Hun Sen has already announced that he will step down after 38 years in power and that his eldest son Hun Manet will take over, with a new cabinet of younger ministers. The step-down does not relieve him from power. As the current president of the CPP, a position he will continue to hold, he also pledged to move on to be the president of the Senate when the Senate election takes place in February 2024 and the president of the Supreme Privy Council to the King.
This election has entrenched that the CPP will continue to rule the country for at least the next five years while leaving the opposition to condemn electoral and political processes but with no real recourse to challenge the CPP.
Under the current circumstances, the political opposition has been left with little chance to push for electoral change, and rights groups and civil society organizations are working in a tenuous situation, where the government considers their foreign sources of funding as interference in Cambodia’s domestic affairs.
At the same time, the CPP moves ahead with its planned transition to a new generation of leaders, with the old guard expected to keep a close eye on the country’s progress. Not much is known about the governance style of the new ministers or how they will lead the country, leaving Cambodia on a path of potential uncertainty in the near future.