IT’S a week since independent newspaper The Cambodia Daily closed its doors. It’s swan-song was a final front page that defiantly read, “Descent Into Outright Dictatorship,” in a stark warning of what the future may hold for the country.
Threatened with legal action over a disputed US$6.3 million tax bill, The Daily was left with little choice but to shut shop, bringing an end to more than 24 years of independent journalism. The pressure from the authorities has left people fearing for the freedom of the press in Cambodia and forced them to contemplate the reality of the newspaper’s parting headline.
— Jodie DeJonge (@jdejonge) September 3, 2017
Since losing ground to the opposition in June’s local elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen appears to be getting increasingly paranoid that the tide of public opinion is turning against his own Cambodia People’s Party (CPP). As a result, he has implemented a crackdown on dissent and appears reluctant to relinquish the power that he has held for 32 years.
With rights groups, newspapers and foreign governments expressing concern over the country’s supposed “descent into outright dictatorship”, here are some of the warning signs that have people troubled in the lead up to next year’s election.
1. Hobbling the opposition party
After the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) made significant gains in 2013 elections, Hun Sen has made concerted efforts to hobble the only party that poses a serious threat to his leadership.
CNRP’s leader Kem Sokha was arrested on Sunday on suspicion of treason. Days later, he was officially charged, despite claims that his parliamentary immunity was infringed. He could face between 15 and 30 years in jail.
The government has threatened that the CNRP could be ruled out of elections entirely if it does not find a replacement within 90 days.
Kem Sokha took over the helm at CNRP in February when the previous leader, Sam Rainsy was forced to resign after Hun Sen’s government rushed amendments through parliament that gave it powers to close any political party if the leader holds a criminal conviction. Rainsy has a number of defamation charges against him and has been in self-imposed exile in France since 2015 to avoid pending defamation charges that he claims are politically motivated.
2. Clampdown on freedom of press
It is not only The Cambodia Daily that has come under fire from the authorities. The Cambodian government has used allegations of bureaucratic misdemeanours against many targets in its recent crackdown.
In past weeks, it has ordered the closure of more than a dozen radio stations that it said had violated broadcasting regulations. These stations were among the few outlets that regularly featured opposition politicians, and licensed programming from the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia (RFA), which are both funded by the US government and have been accused of tax crimes of their own.
— No Gags (@no_gags) August 23, 2017
The government last month also shut down a pro-democracy US non-profit, the National Democratic Institute, and expelled its foreign staff from Cambodia.
3. Hun Sen has vowed to stay in power “not less than 10 years more”
As one of Asia’s longest serving rulers with 32 years in power, Hun Sen is still eager to cling to power.
On Wednesday, when addressing garment factory workers he said, “I’ve decided to continue my work – not less than 10 years more,” claiming that the arrest of Kem Sokha and the likelihood of further arrests for treason had reinforced the need for him to stay in office.
4. He has openly threatened civil war if his party does not win the election
During an address to a crowd of 3,000 soldiers on Veterans Day in May this year, the former Khmer Rouge guerrilla declared that the achievements of the CPP needed to be defended, claiming they must win the election.
“The Cambodian People’s Party must win elections, every election … War will happen if the CPP does not control the country anymore,” he told the audience, as quoted by The Phnom Penh Post.
Prior to this, he hinted that he might deploy military force against any political party that attempts to wrest power away from him.
“They predicted that in 2018 they could win, and if we don’t hand over power to them, they will crush us. How can this happen if the troops are in my hand?” he is quoted as saying by RFA.
5. Cambodia is no longer reliant on US aid
For decades, Hun Sen’s autocratic tendencies have been constrained by his country’s reliance on western aid, which is generally tied to good governance and democracy benchmarks. But analysts fear the billions of dollars in state-driven investment from China in recent years has allowed him to indulge his true political inclinations.
According to Reuters, China pledged US$500 million in aid – a sum that dwarfs America’s US$35 million contribution.
No longer required to pander to US sentiments, Hun Sen’s government is emboldened in its dismantling of pro-democracy organisations it once tolerated.
As the 2018 elections draw closer, the world will be paying attention to the growing atmosphere of menace that many expect to worsen before Cambodia heads to the polls in July.