(New York) – Cambodia’s fundamentally flawed national elections on July 29, 2018, deny the Cambodian people their internationally protected right to choose their government, Human Rights Watch said today. The European Union, United States, Japan, and others have determined that the electoral process is too problematic to send official election observers.
Serious problems with the electoral process include: arbitrary dissolution of the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and surveillance, intimidation, detention, and politically motivated prosecution of key opposition members. Other major concerns include a crackdown on independent media, a lack of fair and equal access to the media, and repressive laws restricting speech, association, and assembly. The national election commission is not independent. Across the country, senior military and police officials have been continuously campaigning for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
“The Cambodian government over the past year has systematically cracked down on independent and opposition voices to ensure that the ruling party faces no obstacles to total political control,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Dissolving the main opposition party and banning many of its senior members from politics means this election cannot possibly reflect the will of the Cambodian people.”
In 2017, the Cambodian government intensified its crackdown on the opposition CNRP through threats, harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and arbitrary detention and prosecutions. On November 16, 2017, the ruling-party-controlled Supreme Court ruled in favor of a government petition alleging the CNRP’s involvement in a “color revolution” to topple the government and dissolved the party. The court also banned 118 senior party members from all political activity for five years.
The government has also brought politically motivated criminal charges against the CNRP leadership. Several convictions against the party’s former leader, Sam Rainsy, forced him into exile. On September 3, 2017, police and military arrested the party’s president, Kem Sokha, on fabricated treason charges for his alleged involvement in a “color revolution.” Since then he has been held in pretrial detention at the remote Trapaing Phlong prison in Tbong Khmum province, far from his family in Phnom Penh.
The dissolution of the opposition party led the US to cut all electoral assistance to the government, and the EU to pull its financial support to the politically biased National Election Committee (NEC). Since then the EU and governments that had previously sent official election observation teams declined to do so because of the many structural problems that make the July 29 election unfair.
Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cambodia is a party, states that, “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity… [t]o vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”
“Governments concerned for Cambodia’s future should denounce this electoral exercise as a cruel fraud against the Cambodian people,” Adams said. “From the day the CNRP was dissolved, this election became a mockery of democracy, and a preordained victory for the ruling party. Now it’s up to the countries that committed so much to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords to help restore genuine democracy to Cambodia or accept the human rights consequences of an effectively one-party state.”
Barriers to Genuine Elections in Cambodia in 2018
The scheduled July 29 national elections in Cambodia will officially be contested by 20 political parties, but the dissolution of the main opposition party, the CNRP, means that the ruling CPP is effectively running unopposed. This and other actions by the Cambodian authorities, highlighted below, prevent the elections from being genuine, free, or fair.
Crackdown on opposition-friendly media
The CPP has long maintained a near monopoly on broadcast media, giving it an unfair advantage over other political parties and limiting access to information for voters, many of whom rely on television and radio for their news and information. State-owned TVK and privately owned stations controlled by the family or associates of Prime Minister Hun Sen continuously broadcast pro-CPP news and viewpoints while either criticizing or entirely ignoring opposition parties.
The government further restricted media freedom by forcing the closure or sale of remaining independent local news outlets. The Cambodia Daily was forced to shut in September 2017 and The Phnom Penh Post was sold in May 2018 when faced with dubious tax bills alleging that the newspapers owed millions of US dollars to the government. Both newspapers gave priority to investigative reporting and frequently criticized the government.
Radio Free Asia (RFA) shut down operations in the country in September 2017 after facing government harassment. Two former RFA journalists, Uon Chin and Yeang Sothearin, are in arbitrary detention on bogus espionage charges. In August 2017, the government ordered 32 radio frequencies in 20 provinces to stop broadcasting because they aired independent news broadcasts by Voice of America, RFA, and Voice of Democracy.
Self-censorship is also a significant problem for local journalists covering the election. On May 24, 2018, the National Election Committee introduced a code of conduct for the media that includes a prohibition on reporting that leads to “confusion and loss of confidence” in the election, publishing news based on rumors or lack of evidence, and using provocative language that may cause disorder or violence. The code also prohibits the publication of news that affects national security and political, and social stability, or expresses personal opinions or prejudice, and prohibits and interviews at voter registration sites, polling places, and ballot-counting locations.
Politically biased National Election Committee
Cambodia’s National Election Committee has lacked credibility because of political bias since its creation before the 1998 national elections.
Political negotiations between the CPP and CNRP after the 2013 elections resulted in some electoral reform, with two election laws adopted in March 2015: the Law on the Election of Members of the National Assembly (LEMNA) and the Law on the National Election Committee. The reformed election committee had nine members, with four chosen by the CNRP and four by the CPP, and the ninth member independent and non-partisan.
However, the government immediately sidetracked the ninth member. Ny Chakrya, a former senior official of the nongovernmental human rights group ADHOC, by bringing baseless criminal charges against him. Shortly after he started work as deputy secretary-general of the election committee in February 2016, the government filed bribery charges against him and four senior ADHOC officials for what was legitimate human rights work. He was detained in April 2016 and held for 427 days.
After the CNRP was dissolved in November 2017, the four members affiliated with it on the election committee resigned, leaving the body completely controlled by the CPP.
In April 2018, the NEC threatened to prosecute anyone who urged voters to boycott the elections. In June 2018, it sent a message to mobile phone subscribers in Cambodia forbidding “criticizing, attacking, or comparing their party policies to other parties.”
Independent local and international nongovernmental organizations have declared that they will not conduct NEC-accredited election observation out of concerns that this would provide undue legitimacy for the election.
Laws restricting freedom of association and voting rights
In 2017, the government rushed through the National Assembly repressive amendments to the Law on Political Parties, which had never been amended since its adoption in 1997. The amendments empowered authorities to dissolve political parties and to ban party leaders from political activity without due process. This revised law enabled the arbitrary arrest of Kem Sokha, the CNRP leader, without a warrant and despite his parliamentary immunity. He had already faced de facto house arrest in 2016 in another politically motivated case.
He remains in pretrial detention despite deteriorating health while judicial investigators ostensibly examine allegations – based on a videotaped speech to CNRP supporters in Australia – that he is leading a “color revolution” to topple the government with US support.
Later amendments to Cambodia’s election laws allow for redistributing of a dissolved party’s parliamentary seats to other political parties. After the court dissolved the CNRP, its seats were redistributed to several minor parties that had failed to win seats in the 2013 election.
Amendments to articles 34 and 42 of Cambodia’s Constitution, adopted in March, tightened restrictions on voting rights and freedom of association and require every Cambodian citizen to “respect the constitution” and “defend the motherland.” Article 34 was changed to allow new restrictions on the right to vote, while article 42 now empowers the government to take action against political parties if they do not “place the country and nation’s interest first,” an amendment that could be used arbitrarily to target opposition parties.
Partisan campaigning by security force members, civil servants
Senior members of the security forces have endorsed Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP at numerous public rallies and other events throughout Cambodia.
Article 9 of the Law on the General Status of Military Personnel of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) states that “military personnel shall be neutral in their functions and work activities, and the use of functions/titles and the state’s materials for any political activities shall be prohibited.”
The partisanship of the military and police have created an intimidating atmosphere for voters in many parts of the country. Relying on official and semiofficial media reports, Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the systemic and open support of senior and local military and police officers for a CPP election victory, and in particular Hun Sen’s continuation as prime minister.
Those involved include the RCAF supreme commander, Pol Saroeun; the RCAF deputy supreme commander, Kun Kim; the deputy commander in chief of RCAF, Meas Sophea; the acting RCAF supreme commander, Sao Sokha; and Hun Sen’s son, Lt. Gen. Hun Manet. Many of them are members of top ruling party leadership bodies and concurrently heads of its “work teams” assigned to organize and mobilize voting for the party in the provinces.
Opposition leaders and activists told Human Rights Watch that they constantly fear that if Hun Sen and the CPP perceive them as posing an electoral threat, the military and police could be ordered to take action against them, including through arbitrary arrests and violence. “It’s always in the back of our minds,” one opposition candidate told Human Rights Watch.
The list of CPP National Assembly candidates includes active-duty high-ranking military, gendarmerie, and police officers, such as Pol Saroeun, Meas Sophea, and Kun Kim, who have helped maintain Hun Sen’s continued rule since 1985.