Members of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party are brought in a police vehicle to the appeals court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 10, 2018.

© 2018 Samrang Pring/Reuters

(New York) – Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen used a crackdown on rights and a bogus election to tighten his grip on power and solidify one-party rule, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019.

In 2018, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) government furthered its repression of the political opposition, independent media, local human rights defenders, trade union leaders, and other activists. Authorities misused the country’s politicized and corrupt judiciary as a political weapon to prosecute human rights advocates and those with dissenting views.

“In 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen destroyed any semblance of democratic rule in Cambodia by hounding critics, dissolving the main opposition party, and holding an election that ensured his dictatorial rule,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Hun Sen has strangled the promises of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, which aimed to create a democratic and rights-respecting Cambodia, while the countries that pledged to support those accords largely looked away.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

There was no genuine national election on July 29 because the CPP-controlled Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and imposed a five-year ban on political activities of 118 senior party members. The National Assembly now consists entirely of 125 CPP members. The government jailed the opposition party’s president, Kem Sokha, for over a year on fabricated treason charges, then transferred him to highly restrictive house arrest. The former CNRP president, Sam Rainsy, remains exiled after being convicted on politically motivated charges, and numerous other party members have fled abroad to escape arbitrary prosecution.

Media freedoms collapsed in 2018. The compelled sale of the Phnom Penh Post to a Malaysian with ties to Hun Sen and the prosecution of two Radio Free Asia journalists on trumped-up charges were the culmination of government actions to eliminate independent newspapers, radio stations, and TV channels. The authorities also increased surveillance of social media and criminally charged ordinary people for Facebook posts critical of the government.

The government further restricted rights to free expression and peaceful assembly by adopting amendments to the repressive Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations and the Trade Union Law, including a lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) clause and constitutional amendments.

The United States pressed for human rights improvements through targeted Global Magnitsky Act sanctions, while the European Union opened a formal review of Cambodia’s Everything But Arms trade preferences. Meanwhile, China invested billions of dollars in Cambodia without regard to human rights considerations.

“Both the US and the EU showed leadership in the July election by pulling funding, refusing to send observers, and ultimately imposing rights-based sanctions to press for government reform,” Adams said. “Other donor governments should follow suit and hold Hun Sen accountable for his abusive rule.”