[Cambodia] How to dismantle a democracy?

The Cambodian government led a coordinated crackdown on independent media, civil society organizations (CSOs), activists, and the opposition party in the last quarter of 2017.

At least 32 radio stations broadcasting independent media content were closed by the Ministry of Information. The Cambodia Daily, a 24-year old newspaper published in English, was forced to shut down due to an alleged USD 6.3-million tax bill.

The National Democratic Institute (NDI), a United States-based organization working on the promotion of free and fair elections, was forced to close its office and all foreign staff were ordered to leave Cambodia.

Opposition party leader Kem Sokha was arrested in a midnight raid and charged with treason. Cambodia’s democracy was struck a fatal blow when in mid-November 2017, the Supreme Court dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) — the only opposition party in the country.

Without doubt, Cambodia’s democracy is now completely dead.

However, a few questions remain unanswered: Why did the government launch a string of crackdowns only after the commune elections in June 2017? Why was the independent media targeted? What will Cambodia’s democracy and national elections look like when there is no opposition party and the independent media have been silenced by the government?

The goal of this report is to answer these questions and analyze how the events and actors are connected.

 

Independent media: True, but unwanted voices

While Article 41 of the Constitution of Cambodia guarantees press freedom, the reality for the media is that they have never been free and have been heavily influenced by the ruling party.

The trends have become even more critical in recent years. According to the World Press Freedom Index 2017 released by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Cambodia is 132nd out of the 180 countries in the rankings. Even though there was no reporter killed in 2017, suppression of press freedom has been intensified by the government in other forms.

Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter, then reporters of Cambodia Daily, were harassed and accused of incitement while the two were covering local campaigns in June 2017. Hout Vuthy also known as Chun Chanboth, deputy director at the Radio Free Asia (RFA), fled the country after being charged with falsifying identification when he tried to visit some jailed opposition party officials. RFA unilaterally closed down its office in Phnom Penh after government pressure. A few months later, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, former RFA reporters, were arrested and charged with espionage. In November 2017, Len Leng, former Cambodian Daily reporter, was arrested and taken into custody simply because she was standing near the gate of the Supreme Court during the hearing that eventually dissolved CNRP.

Australian filmmaker James Ricketson was arrested and charged with espionage. If convicted, Ricketson would face 10 years of imprisonment. There were seven cases of people arrested for criticizing the Prime Minister on their Facebook accounts in 2017.

All of the charges by the government against these reporters, activists, and opposition party members are groundless and purely politically-motivated.

Controlling the mass media has long been the great advantage of the ruling political party — Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). While the government claims that the number of media outlets is an indication of media diversity, only 50 out of 460 print outlets are in active operation. (Challenges to Independent Media 2016) In addition, the vast majority of these media are controlled by both the CPP and CPP-affiliated business tycoons. According to the “Media Ownership Monitor Cambodia 2015 (MOM Cambodia)” – a joint investigative report on media ownership in Cambodia conducted by RSF and the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) – about 85 percent of cross-media audiences are controlled by the top four owners of media including the Prime Minister’s daughter Hun Mana and CPP Senator and Cambodia Chamber of Commerce president Kith Meng. This government control and influence ranks as the second greatest challenge to independent media. Once the owners of media intervene in news content, the quality of report writing changes. As one of the reporters interviewed in the 2017 survey admitted: “Once our editors have changed (our stories) one or two times, we start to understand, and, moreover, we become worried that our boss will consider us as a dissident.” (Challenges for Independent Media 2017).

Even though the CPP is still firmly in control of the mass media, the level has been challenged by the rise of information and communications technology (ICT). With the emergence of smartphones and greater access to mobile internet, ICT-based social media have become one the most important means of communication and the gateway to greater access to information. According to “Mobile Phones and Internet Use in Cambodia in 2016” – a four-year research project from 2013 to 2016 by the Open Institute, 96 percent of Cambodians own a mobile phone; while 48 percent of them own at least one smartphone.

The use of social media keeps increasing and has become a part of the daily lives of Cambodians. Forty-eight percent of those who have a smartphone are using Facebook — a 200 percent-increase compared to 2013. (Open Institute, 2017) The report found that at least one-third of Cambodians heavily depend on the internet to access news. These users claim that the internet actually enhances their communication skills and increases their access to news and social participation. Therefore, social media have become a part of their everyday lives and are not limited to communication and business, but also have helped their participation in active citizenship and political issues.

While television is the king of all media and most of the other kinds remain under the firm control of the CPP, the rise of internet and ICT is increasingly challenging the CPP-owned media. Even though social media are not the perfect sources of news and given its mixture with “fake news,” these have provided the people of Cambodia with greater access to independent media — which the ruling party has found to be difficult to manipulate. Facebook, for instance, has become a platform of discussion and information – are being shared at the speed of light. Once the negative images and failed policies of the government go online — they are there forever. Within this context, the ruling party is technically losing control of the media. Thus, curbing the independent media has become one of the immediate priorities of the ruling party.

 

Politically-motivated laws locked CSOs in government’s radar

Since the conclusion of the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991, CSOs have been playing a critical role in promoting human rights and democracy. The role of CSOs has been challenged and limited by politically-motivated laws in recent years.

The Law on Association and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), for instance, has locked CSOs into government radar limiting freedom of expression and interfering in their internal affairs in Cambodia. While this law was drafted and passed quickly without consultation with relevant stakeholders, including CSOs, the implementation of the law remains unclear allowing the law to be interpreted differently by different people.

This situation was clear when NDI, which has worked in Cambodia since 1992, was ordered to terminate its operation in August 2017. As an international CSO, NDI is not obligated to register with the Ministry of Interior unlike local CSOs. However, ambiguities contained within the LANGO allowed the government to interpret the law to its favor.

A similar case happened in the following months to Equitable Cambodia (EC), a local CSO working on land rights and natural resources governance. As a result, the Ministry of Interior ordered EC to suspend its operation temporarily while waiting for investigation and document clarification.

NDI and EC were the first two victims of LANGO; there is no guarantee that they will be the last. Traditionally, CSOs have been accused of being opposition-affiliated institutions. NDI, for instance, was accused of colluding with opposition party leader Kem Sokha in an effort to stage a “color revolution;” while EC was accused of failing to comply with LANGO and inciting the community to carry out violent protests. Although EC was later allowed to resume its operation by the Ministry of Interior, the US-based NDI did not get the same favor.

 

CNRP as an ‘imminent threat’ to be eliminated at all costs

The general elections in 2013 was regarded as the most remarkable turning point in Cambodian politics since the first elections in 1993. CNRP emerged as a peer competitor against the CPP. The CNRP accepted the controversial election result after the ruling party responded with violent crackdowns during the mass demonstrations of 2014. It became clear that Cambodian politics had become divided between two poles, the CNRP and the CPP.

Even though the opposition party was not able to win and control the government, its popularity grew rapidly and the CNRP became an “imminent threat” to the CPP. The result of the commune elections in June 2017 was a very good indicator and projection of this political shift. While the CPP still controls the majority of commune chiefs, it lost nearly 500 of commune chiefs to the CNRP, which controlled fewer than 40 during the local elections in 2012. More importantly, the CNRP gained up to 44 percent of the total popular votes. Despite the fact that there were still some irregularities, all of them were minor and did not affect the result of the elections. It is critically important to note that the commune elections in June 2017 was the first elections run by the National Election Committee after being reformed with financial and technical assistance from the European Union and Japan. If this trend continues during the general elections of 2018, it is highly likely that the CNRP would defeat the CPP and control the government.

In the same way that the government restricted and abolished the independent media, getting rid of the CNRP became a strategy of necessity for the CPP slashing out the looming political threat and paving the way for the CPP to remain in power after the general elections in July 2018.

 

The future of Cambodia’s ‘democracy’

After dealing with the independent media, some CSOs, and the opposition party, it seems to be clear that nothing would be able to challenge the CPP in the upcoming elections. It is clear that the CPP is going to stay in power for at least another term of five years.

Although the elections is meaningless without an opposition party and without an independent media, there are few options available. Sanctions against the Hun Sen government are realistic, but not effective enough to rectify the deteriorating political situation, given the role of China and its growing influence in Cambodia.

More importantly, the CPP carefully calculated the timeframe of actions. The crackdown took place just less than a year ahead of the elections. It was a shock and it was too short a time for foreign countries, including the United States and the European Union to do anything to force the CPP to reverse its actions. Strategically, coercive diplomacy has yielded very limited outcome. It is not clear if Cambodia will turn back to democratic processes in the future. However, what is clear is that there is a renaissance of the one-party system after the opposition party was dissolved and democracy destroyed.

 

Conclusion

The year 2017 was the most critical year for Cambodian politics since 1993. The independent media was silenced and independent journalists were harassed by legal actions and intimidation.  CSOs have been restricted by politically motivated laws. The opposition leader was arrested and jailed, while the party itself was dissolved by the Supreme Court.

The current political system in Cambodia is technically not different from that of Laos, Vietnam and China, where government is ruled by a politburo rather than by a democratic government with voices of an opposition party.

As Cambodia heads towards the national elections in July 2018, the legitimacy of a new government would be challenged by the absence of a free and independent media, ongoing suppression of CSOs and other human rights violations, the abolition of the opposition party and the imprisonment of its leader.

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