On November 16th, Cambodia’s Supreme Court announced a ruling that effectively dissolved the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). With this, Prime Minister Hun Sen is likely set to retain his position of three decades in the upcoming general elections next year.
The ruling also included a five-year political ban for 118 members of the party. But to understand the tension between the two parties necessitates a look at the history of the relationship between CNRP and Hun Sen’s party, the Cambodian People’s Party.
In 2012, the elections culminated in two opposition parties, the Human Rights Party and the Sam Rainsy Party, winning a combined 40 commune chief positions. Growing in momentum, the two met in July to form a single opposition party. It was a party to “unite all patriots and democrats” and challenge the former Khmer Rouge fighter currently in power. Now as a single unit, the opposition only grew stronger.
Its strength was tested in the upcoming elections on July 28 of the next year. Though voter turnout was lowest in Cambodia’s history at 68.5%, the CNRP won 55 of the 123 seats to the National Assembly, marking the largest seat loss by the Cambodian People’s Party to date.
Even so, the results were not without discontent. Anti-government protests filled the streets of Cambodia for a year against Prime Minister Hun Sen, precipitated by allegations of electoral fraud, but at the same time reflected the resentment of Cambodians over perceptions of corruption, lack of freedom, and overall poor quality of life.
In response, the government cracked down hard. It closed down Freedom Park, a protest site for the opposition. Hundreds of security personnel moved in to the capital. Parks and marches were banned from being used as protest sites. But the real crackdown showed in a raid on the park after police opened fire on garment workers on strike, killing at least four and injuring over twenty.
All that was three years ago, but since then Hun Sen has not relinquished any of his hard-line policies in regards to his political rivals. At least 15 independent radio stations were de-licensed for broadcasting Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, a vital source of independent news for the rural population. It has shut down institutions such as the National Democratic Institute, an American nonprofit, and the Cambodia Daily, one of two independent English newspapers after a $6.3 million tax bill and a one-month deadline. The paper had long been a critic of the government, covering topics ranging from corruption and land use.
Still, the crackdown has not made the opposition any less popular. Results of the 2017 communal elections saw the CPP winning 70% of the country’s 1,646 commune council- a significant drop from 97% from the communal elections of 2012. With his party on decline, Hun Sen set to act. This time, rather than targeting civil liberties, which would indubitably lead to more dissent, the focus was on the party itself.
On September 3rd, armed police officers swarmed the house of opposition leader Kem Sokha, arrested him in the middle of the night, and drove him to a remote prison on the border of Cambodia. Two days later, he was formally charged with treason, accused by the government of plotting a revolution to overthrow the sitting leader backed by the United States. The charge followed the closing of at least 15 independent radio stations broadcasting programs; without free media and the opposition, the path was set for the continuation of Hun Sen’s rule.
But the government didn’t end there. Hun Sen continued to sue the CNRP before the Supreme Court on behalf of the Interior Ministry to completely dissolve the Party, citing similar conspiracy charges. The subsequent victory of the government leaves Cambodia now a one-party state, the implications of which are enormous. As CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann puts it, “this is the end of democracy in Cambodia.”
However, what allows Hun Sen to do such a thing? What makes him confident enough so much so that he is willing to jeopardize the face of Cambodia and its democracy?
China. In recent years, bilateral trade has increased immensely, amounting to one-fifth of Cambodia’s total GDP. This is in addition to another $12 billion in Chinese investment. In return, Cambodia has become China’s wingman, supporting its actions in the international forum, specifically its territorial gains in the South China Sea. With this newfound relationship, Sen no longer sees a need to maintain the thin veil of democracy in order to appease the West in exchange for an economic relationship.
The situation is rocky. With a history like Cambodia’s, reversion to autocracy and authoritarian rule is not completely unlikely. But only time will tell. Will Cambodia see a repetition of history? Or has it learned its lesson?