Democracy Is Under Threat Once More in Hun Sen's Cambodia

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Inflammatory, bombastic rhetoric demonizing opponents of the regime, verging on incitement to violence—check.

Leveraging corrupt courts of law to levy enormous “fines” against opposition leaders in exile—check.

Forcing the closure of independent radio stations and media organizations—check.

Expelling foreign reporters critical of the government, as well as foreign staff of pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations—check and check.

Arresting sitting members of parliament on spurious treason charges—check.


The authoritarian regime of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) regime has been working its way through the checklist of despotism for decades now. In 2017, however, the campaign of outright political persecution and repression has once again kicked into high gear.

Hun Sen, the leader of the CPP and Cambodia’s would-be dictator, is trying to cement his own power by cracking down on the free press and any parties or people who seek to confront his corrupt rule democratically. In September, opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha was accused of treason and plotting some ill-defined conspiracy with insidious human rights NGOs and, of course, the US government. Sokha’s predecessor, Sam Rainsy, was forced into exile in 2016 to avoid similar prosecution.

Hun Sen was a mid-level commander of the genocidal communist Khmer Rouge regime until 1977, when he fled to Vietnam, fearing that he was about to be purged by dictator Pol Pot. After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1978, Hun rose to power in the pro-Vietnamese one-party communist regime they established. In 1991, a constitutional Kingdom of Cambodia was restored, and Hun’s Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party abandoned Marxism-Leninism and transformed itself into the Cambodian People’s Party in 1991. But a 1997 coup returned him to essentially dictatorial power. The self-proclaimed “strongman” has never looked back.

In fact, Hun Sen has repeatedly stymied the work of the UN-backed tribunal set up to try the Khmer Rouge commanders responsible for one of the worst bloodlettings of the twentieth century—perhaps because of his own background in the party.

According to an English-language press release disseminated on the day of Sokha’s arrest, the CPP accused him of colluding with the United States to carry out a military putsch against the Cambodian government “[taking] the model from Yugoslavia.” It seems lost on the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that in such a situation, Hun Sen would be analogous to the genocidal Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević.

In November, the CPP boss took the next step: the supreme court forcibly dissolved the CNRP, legally sanctioned 118 party officials, and moved to forcibly evict all CNRP lawmakers from their seats. “We will still strongly adhere to democracy at the national and sub-national level,” said Hun Sen in a televised address. “The Supreme Court has just issued the verdict to dissolve the CNRP and it is according to the principle of rule of law.”

In response, the US State Department issued visa bans against all Cambodian officials involved with Sokha’s show trial and the persecution of the CNRP. “We call on the Cambodian government to reverse course by reinstating the political opposition, releasing Kem Sokha, and allowing civil society and media to resume their constitutionally protected activities,” said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert in a December press release.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) went even further, threatening more legislation targeting Hun Sen and his CPP cronies: “The people of Cambodia deserve better than a strongman dictator; the United States must not relent in our longstanding commitment to preserving freedom there.”

What spurred Hun Sen’s most recent pivot to Putin-style authoritarian behavior? He may well fear that the Cambodian people are tiring of the CPP’s blatant corruption and obsessive centralization of authority.

In the nationwide commune (municipal) elections held this past June, the CNRP received roughly 46 percent of the popular vote and captured 482 of 1,646 commune chief seats, according to Radio Free Asia. With nearly 90 percent voter turnout in that election, it is clear that grassroots participation in Cambodian democracy is increasing and the CNRP platform of decentralization and political accountability struck a chord with the Cambodian people.

The next major round of national elections is slated for July 2018, during which all 123 seats in Cambodia’s National Assembly will be contested. With the CNRP dissolved as a party and its leaders imprisoned, in exile, or “stripped of their political rights,” a CPP sweep is all but certain.

Nevertheless, opposition figures and activists remain committed to liberal democracy and inalienable rights in Cambodia. “Even if I’m a normal citizen, I still have the rights and freedom to express my ideas by not having to tie myself to any political party,” said Sam Rainsy in an interview. “As a Khmer citizen, I will continue to talk about the truth, to reveal the truth—either concerning the past, our history, the present truth, or any future progress that concerns me and Cambodian citizens as a whole. I will continue raising such concerns, along with my hopes as a patriot and lover of justice.”