[Cambodia] Election sounds death knell for democracy, advocates say

[Cambodia] Election sounds death knell for democracy, advocates say

Photo (from L to R): FORUM-ASIA program officer Sejin Kim, National Democratic Institute director of Cambodia program John Cavanaugh, Asian Network for Free Elections program officer Karel Jiaan Antonio, International Commission of Jurists senior international legal adviser for Southeast Asia Kingsley Abbott discuss the post-election prospects for democracy in Cambodia.

Bangkok, Thailand — Regional and international civil society organizations declared the 2018 Cambodia elections as “nothing but a charade,” noting an “unprecedented level of intimidation” and violation of fundamental rights in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote.

Speaking at the forum held Thursday, 2 August 2018, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) in this capital, panelists rued the absence of all vestiges of a credible election in Cambodia, including reporting by independent media, which, alongside civil society and political opposition, became the targets of a massive crackdown by the government before the elections.

Dubbed “Post-Mortem for Cambodia Democracy: The ‘Elections’ and Hun Sen’s Dictatorship,” the forum was jointly organized by the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Human Rights Watch (HRW), International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL).

The polls, held on 29 July, were marked by “a widely lopsided victory of Cambodia’s dictator, Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the death of Cambodian democracy and respect for human rights long ago promised by the Paris Peace Accords.”

The 1991 agreement marked the end of two decades of civil war in Cambodia and was seen as the harbinger of peace, democracy, and human rights in the strife-torn Southeast Asian country.

Video: Excerpts from the press conference

“Truly democratic elections rely on the free exercise by citizens of their freedoms of expressions, assembly and association, but such freedoms were methodically undermined in Cambodia starting well in advance of polling day,” said ANFREL in a press statement.

The National Election Committee (NEC) of Cambodia reported a 82 percent voter turnout, which human rights defenders described as highly unreliable amid numerous incidents of voter harassment as well as “offers of favors and monetary incentives” by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). (“The 2018 Cambodian Elections: Nothing but a charade”)

The recently concluded elections were held in a “climate of fear,” said Phil Robertson, HRW deputy director for Asia.

Karel Jiaan Antonio, program officer of ANFREL, and Kingsley Abbott, ICJ’s Senior International Legal Adviser for Southeast Asia, pointed out that tremendous pressure was placed on citizens to vote so much so that ink-stained fingers were touted as an indubitable proof of their participation in the electoral exercise while other Cambodians opted to join the “clean finger” campaign, calls for which were denounced by Hun Sen.

ANFREL’s Antonio said 9 percent of the ballots were invalidated in the last election, adding this was “six times” the number registered in the last (2013) polls — an “astronomical” rise, he said. While the NEC described it as a failure of “voter education,” he thought otherwise.

Hundreds of thousands of voters reportedly spoiled their ballots as an act of protest.

Members of the panel during the FCCT forum emphasized the crackdown on independent and critical voices on the ground.

FORUM-ASIA’s Sejin Kim cited the pattern of abuses against human rights defenders in Cambodia in the last two years, showing data indicating prevalent harassment and attacks against community-based defenders, pro-democracy activists, and media practitioners and users. Restrictions on free expression, particularly online, and freedom of assembly/association were on the rise as well.

Four of the 48 (8%) cases of harassment documented by FORUM-Asia during the period July 2016-July 2018 involved journalists. Six out of 17 instances of violations of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression, involved media freedom (6%) and online free expression (32%).

Just before the election the government blocked at least 17 websites. In the last year, a number of media outlets were threatened with closure and forced to shut down while several laws were passed to curb the exercise of free speech.

In the context of the dissolution of the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), a legal system weaponized to favor CPP, and shrinking (non-existent) civic space — the panel agreed that the situation in country today is “perverse” and that repression of independent voices will continue, if not worsen.

Seen through the democratic lens, the next five years — the span of Hun Sen’s new term as Prime Minister — will be “considerably more difficult,” they said.

Full video of the press conference from the Facebook page of FORUM-ASIA
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