Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in 2014

As Cambodia slides further towards absolute authoritarianism, today marks the first anniversary of the assassination of Cambodia’s leading pro-democracy activist, Dr Kem Ley. His murder, in broad daylight, appeared to have been intended to silence dissent in a country that had once been hailed as an example of the international community’s ability to bring peace and democracy to a war-torn country.

Today, Cambodia retains the facade of elections, but any pretense it once had to being a democracy has long since vanished. Cambodia’s historic, UN-supervised 1993 elections intended to have put the country on a democratic footing were wrecked when Prime Minister Hun Sen refused to acknowledge defeat and insisted on a power-sharing arrangement with the winning royalist FUNCINPEC party.

As Cambodia’s notorious Khmer Rouge disintegrated four years later in 1997, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) staged a coup against its royalist FUNCINPEC partners, then bullied its way to winning fresh elections in 1998. Cambodia’s elections have been increasingly constrained since then, with opposition figures murdered or hounded out of the country, and intimidation, violence and vote-rigging used to retain the CPP in power.

In the last elections, in 2013, more than a million voters were believed to have been excluded from the electoral role, while ethnic Vietnamese who had been excluded from the electoral role were included. With Cambodian politics assuming a nationalist hue, ethnic Vietnamese voters were disinclined to support the nationalist opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).

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Further, “indelible” ink intended to mark the fingers of voters was able to be washed off, giving new meaning to the phrase “vote early, vote often”. As it turned out, the CNRP achieved 44.46% of the vote, with the CPP reduced to 48.81%.   

It was widely believed that a transparent vote count would have showed that the CPP had lost the election and Hun Sen deposed as PM. Set against the close outcome and allegations of electoral fraud, Kem Ley moved to register a new political party — and was murdered.

Cambodia recently held local municipal (“commune”) elections, in which the vote was again close. Just ahead of the commune elections, Hun Sen said: “Words can cause war if the CPP loses patience and goes to your homes and burns down your homes.”

Now the focus is on the national elections due next year. Following the commune elections, Hun Sen said troops would “crack down on all movements that would topple [the government] and damage the nation”. He advised the opposition to “prepare coffins”.  

The increasingly vitriolic comments come as a new and more transparent vote-counting system could mean that after 33 years as PM, Hun Sen could be pushed from power.

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However, Hun Sen controls Cambodia’s army, with one of his sons being the head of military intelligence, controlling internal civil and military affairs. Another of his sons is head of broadly defined “counter-terrorism”. His third son is a parliamentarian and head of the country’s youth federation.

One view is that, ahead of elections it could well lose, the CPP might instigate unrest and then declare a state of emergency, indefinitely cancelling the elections. Failing this, as in 1993, Hun Sen could again force the winning party into a temporary power-sharing arrangement. Or, as in 1997, he could simply launch a coup against the winning party.

Any of these acts would likely attract international condemnation. But with China now as Cambodia’s backer, that is likely to have little effect.

Yet rather than Cambodia’s opposition being cowed, Kem Ley’s murder seems to have galvanised it. Having been held out the promise of democracy by the international community, many Cambodians are not yet prepared to abandon that aspiration that Kem Ley represented on their behalf.

*Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s Professor of International Politics and author of Politics in Contemporary Southeast Asia