Democracy in Cambodia is backsliding. The flawed elections of July 2013 led to severe restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech.
Nineteen governments, including the U.S., signed the Paris Peace Agreements on October 23, 1991, following the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, a brutal Communist political regime that killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians. The signatories of the Agreements promised to hold Cambodia accountable if the state of democracy was under threat. Signatories of the Paris Peace Agreements were supposed to ensure “the right to self-determination of the Cambodian people through free and fair elections” and “assur[e] protection of human rights.”
New developments have jeopardized democracy in Cambodia. Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, leaders of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), are effectively silenced, human rights lawyers and advocates are extrajudicially imprisoned, and freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are severely restricted. The Paris Peace Agreements signatories should hold the government of Cambodia accountable for turning from democracy to authoritarianism.
The Devolution of Democracy in Cambodia
Cambodian democracy’s devolution comes on the heels of a flawed election in July 2013. In the previous election, the opposition CNRP came close to its first victory. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed only 68 of the 123 seats in the assembly, leaving the CNRP with 55 seats. The CNRP subsequently protested the elections, claiming election fraud and pointing to a CPP-dominated Constitutional Council, misuse of temporary voting cards, and allegations from election observers that as many as 10,000 voting irregularities occurred as evidence.
Protests ensued from the July elections and continued until June 2014, when the CPP and CNRP negotiated a settlement. The settlement consisted of three tasks:
- Reform the main electoral body in Cambodia, the National Election Committee (NEC);
- Release seven members of the opposition from prison; and
- Clean up the nation’s voting records.
Of these tasks, the Cambodian government undertook only the NEC reform. At present, there are nine members of the NEC, as opposed to eleven. Four members are CPP, four are CNRP, and one is an apolitical civil society actor selected by both parties. However, NEC deputy secretary-general and advocate at the Cambodian human rights nongovernmental organization, Adhoc, Ny Chakyra is now imprisoned on charges that he aided in the cover-up of Kem Sokha’s purported mistress.
As for the other two tasks, Chakyra’s absence from the NEC impedes its ability to clean up voting records in preparation for the 2017 and 2018 elections. And although the CPP released the seven political prisoners as promised, at least 29 political prisoners are now in custody, including human rights and political activists. In short, the CPP has failed to fulfill its promises in the June 2014 agreement.
The Current Situation
In recent months, the erosion of democratic institutions in Cambodia has become increasingly apparent. In November 2015, Prime Minister Hun Sen, leader of the ruling CPP, resurrected defamation charges against Sam Rainsy, leading to his self-imposed exile. Hun Sen removed Rainsy from his parliamentary seat and called for his arrest.
Later that month, Cambodian state security forces allegedly assaulted and beat two CNRP parliamentarians, Kung Sophea and Nhay Chamraoen. Now the CPP lodged charges against CNRP second-in-command, Kem Sokha, on allegations of an affair and human trafficking. These charges are viewed as largely political and an attempt to silence the CNRP. Sokha is currently under de facto house arrest at party headquarters after officials attempted to arrest him on May 26, 2016.
However, Sokha remains an acting government official with political immunity under article 80 of the Cambodian constitution. As a result, the Cambodian government is attempting to use in flagrante delicto (the notion of being caught in the act) to effectively dissolve Kem Sokha’s immunity.
Cambodia must now make similar decisions as were made in Burma: retain its dictatorial leadership with restrictions on basic freedoms, or turn away from authoritarianism. Some observers, in fact, including Sam Rainsy, have urged that the international community shine a light on Cambodia in the same way that it did with Burma.
Concrete Steps to Address the Cambodian Situation
The Paris Peace Agreements included provisions designed precisely to address Cambodia’s present situation. The 19 signatories agreed to come to the aid of Cambodia in the event that Cambodia was failing to fulfill the commitment it made in the Paris Peace Agreements to institute democracy. Immediate steps toward this goal include:
- Pressing for the establishment of a Cambodia contact group made up of parties to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements. The group, which includes the U.S., Japan, Indonesia, Australia, the U.K., and France, would monitor and press for democratic reform and respect for human rights. In addition, the group should coordinate human rights policies and assistance programs toward Cambodia, including participation in the annual donor group meeting, the Cambodia Development Cooperation Forum.
- The U.S. should conduct a review of its democracy programming. Given the lack of sufficient progress in many areas of Cambodia’s democracy since 1993, the U.S. Agency for International Development should conduct a formal review of its democracy programming to identify deficiencies in current areas of focus or channels and identify new areas and mechanisms for political development.
The signatories of the Paris Peace Agreements, including the U.S., have a responsibility to ensure that democratic principles are upheld in Cambodia. As a foremost world leader, the U.S. should take the immediate and concrete steps toward that goal.
—Olivia Enos is a Research Associate in the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.