Despite the hopes once held for it by the international community, Cambodia’s long slide into becoming a one-party state is now effectively complete. Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has announced that the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) will be banned and that its seats will be redistributed among other parties, including his governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Hun Sen announced that he had asked Cambodia’s deeply compromised Supreme Court to dissolve the CNRP following the arrest of its leader, Kem Sokha, on September 3 on a charge of “treason”. Kem Sokha was charged with attempting to overthrow the now China-aligned government with the assistance of the United States.

Hun Sen has earlier threatened he would dissolve the CNRP if it did not disavow Kem Sokha. The CNRP has since refused to do so and Hun Sen is now fulfilling his threat.  

In an act of startling hypocrisy, Hun Sen said: “Because they didn’t respect the Paris Peace Agreement, the political party will be dissolved in the future, this is a fact”. The 1991 Paris Peace Accords marked the official end of the Vietnam-Cambodia War, the creation of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia and the establishment of what was supposed to be a multi-party “liberal democracy”.

The CPP lost the 1992 elections to then then royalist FUNCINPEC, but insisted on a power-sharing arrangement, which it subverted in 1997 when it launched a coup against its governing partner. The CPP won the subsequent 1998 elections amid attacks on opposition rallies. Despite the CPP’s popularity among some communities, it has increasingly rigged Cambodia’s political playing field in its favour since then.     

In 2015, the Cambodian government used an electoral technicality to ban then opposition leader Sam Rainsy from standing for election and barred him from returning from exile to Cambodia. In 2017 the government introduced a law making it illegal to associate with anyone convicted of a criminal offence, widely seen as excluding leading opposition figures convicted on what appeared to be flimsy charges.

It was widely believed that the CPP rigged the outcome of Cambodia’s 2013 elections to ensure its win, despite strong indications that the result was much closer than officially reported 4% difference (the CPP secured 68 seats to the CNRP’s 55 seats). The CNRP claimed that between 1.2 and 1.3 million voters were omitted from the voting rolls, while “indelible” ink used to mark voter’s fingers could be washed off.

Critics had subsequently expected that Hun Sen would either cancel the country’s 2018 elections or else construct a pretext to dissolve the CNRP. The CPP has now effectively eliminated all viable opposition in Cambodia, leaving just a small handful of tiny, compliant parties as in neighbouring one party states of Vietnam and Laos.

The CPP recently tightened its stranglehold on Cambodia’s media, shutting down the forthright Cambodia Daily, following which Hun Sen announced that he intended to remain in power for another decade, taking him from assuming leadership in 1985 through to 2027. He has also threatened “war” if the CPP lost an election. Hun Sen and his family closely control Cambodia’s military.

Cambodia had previously paid some lip service to the remnants of the Paris Peace Accords through allowing a form of viable opposition. However, with the Opposition closing in on the CPP and threatening to win the 2018 elections, Hun Sen decided that “democracy” had gone far enough.

What were once threats of sanctions by the US for the CPP’s open breaches of the Paris Peace Agreement, its ability to influence events have since diminished. The US’s $35 million of aid which it could use as some leverage, has been dwarfed by China’s promise of $548 million, along with its extensive trading and investment links. Although with it abandoning democratic processes, Cambodia is increasingly seen as a Chinese client state.

Despite the efforts of the international community in what was, at the time, the largest ever state-building exercise, Cambodia has given up its democratic pretext. It now joins Thailand as a country that allows elections only so long as they return the desired result. Thailand’s military government has since rewritten its constitution to ensure that the results of voting are deeply circumscribed by institutional appointments.

In Cambodia, the incremental hobbling of the Opposition has, until now, worked well enough. However, the final removal of the Opposition now ensures that the CPP, with Hun Sen at its head, remains assured of political power into the foreseeable future.

* Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s Professor of International Politics, and author of Politics in Contemporary Southeast Asia (Routledge 2017).      

Peter Fray

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