For Opposition, NGOs, Criticism Effectively Criminalized Ahead of Election

6 min read
A collage of photographs posted to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook page.
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When Prime Minister Hun Sen warned his detractors that they would face lawsuits or violence if they expressed any dissent against his Cambodian People’s Party, he didn’t waste much time to show he was serious about the threat.

Within 48 hours, opposition leader Kong Korm was facing two lawsuits claiming damages of $1.5 million, an Anti-Corruption Unit investigation and potential eviction from his home. Korm had dared to criticize the CPP in a speech in Tbong Khmum, where he also employed the questionable tactic of stoking anti-Vietnamese sentiments in talking about the ruling party’s foundations.

Korm, finding himself in a bind, has quickly attempted to find a peaceful exit from this predicament and is working to placate the ire of the prime minister. With around 190 days to go until the national election, Korm will unlikely be the last to find themselves in such a situation.

The octogenarian politician’s colleague in the Candlelight Party, Son Chhay, is facing similar pressures. The CPP and National Election Committee successfully sued him for questioning election procedures and alleging there was a “stealing” of votes, and has been ordered to pay the ruling party $1 million in damages and has had two of his properties seized by the court.

According to Hun Sen, it’s the opposition politicians who are forcing him to take these actions. “If you don’t stop attacking, we have no choice,” he said.

The lawsuits against opposition leaders — and Hun Sen’s diktat this week — has small party leaders and observers concerned that any and all dissent directed at him and his party has effectively been criminalized.

Ou Chanrath heads the Cambodia Reform Party. He is a former lawmaker with the Cambodia National Rescue Party and an ally of former CNRP president Kem Sokha. He said the line drawn in the sand by the prime minister makes it hard to be critical, especially of potential election violations.

“I already listened to his message about suing from the bottom to the top across the nation. I think this is worrying parties competing in a democratic country. So in a competition you can’t avoid criticism,” he said.

Some feel that the constant, and often mundane, bickering also takes away from other important work government officials like the prime minister should focus on.

Ny Sokha, the head of human rights group Adhoc, felt the weeklong focus on a 0.5-hectare piece of land occupied by Korm was a distraction from more pressing issues.

“I think our politicians should think more about the national interest rather than personal conflicts or group conflicts,” he said on Thursday.

More concerning are Hun Sen’s threats of violence and beatings. These aren’t empty threats; the violent tendencies of security personnel or ruling-party aligned groups are well documented.

This was also not the first warning of violence and bloodshed from the ruling elite. In the run up to the June 2017 commune election, Defense Minister Tea Banh said he would “smash the teeth” of anyone who questioned the results of the election.

A few weeks later, Social Affairs Minister Vong Soth said he would hit protesters’ heads with “the bottom end of bamboo poles.”

Some groups have followed through on these threats. In 2016, two serving CNRP lawmakers were dragged out of their cars by a violent mob — some individuals linked to the prime minister’s Bodyguard Unit — and beaten up right outside the National Assembly. In return, the two lawmakers are now in exile overseas with the perpetrators given mostly suspended sentences and later promoted within the military. 

As recently as last year, a Candlelight activist in Phnom Penh was attacked by unknown assailants and sustained deep wounds to the head. The party says as many as 30 people linked to the opposition have been at the receiving end of violent attacks, with little to no arrests of the attackers. 

Ly Sothearayuth, the secretary-general for Candlelight, said whether or not Hun Sen’s threats were serious, they were already having a chilling effect on the opposition.

“I think whether they want to do it or not, the public can understand whether or not this is a threat. He is the government and fully powerful,” Sothearayuth said. “If this message is meant to intimidate and threaten, it will impact people mentally.”

While politicians will be directly in the firing line, human rights and civil society groups are also facing heat. This was evidenced by the pressure the government and police put on a music video sung by popular rapper Kea Sokun on the ninth anniversary of violence against striking garment workers on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Blvd.

The music video showed images of the violence and bloodied workers being carried away — all historical footage — but the Culture Ministry deemed it too inflammatory and asked for law enforcement to investigate the song.

Four heads of NGOs — two that had commissioned the video and two that shared it on their Facebook pages — were summoned to the Phnom Penh Municipal Police for questioning this week. With the threat of legal action dangled against three of the four groups, rights NGO Licadho, labor group Central and informal worker association IDEA all decided to take down the video.

In recent political trials, the government has characterized the Veng Sreng protests as a budding color revolution that was cut down before it could cause wider harm. For the CPP, the apparent lesson learned from the mass protests of 2013 and 2014 is, as party spokesman Sok Eysan has said: “Don’t let a spark become a fire. Put it out before the fire grows.”

This extends even to ordinary citizens with no clear political affiliations. During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, provincial police in Kampot made a schoolgirl issue a public apology for claiming she was aware of deaths from the disease. The apology was posted on social media and, for a few hours, revealed the underage student’s identity, before an edited video concealed her face.

In 2021, a longan farmer in Battambang was arrested and convicted for being critical of the government’s plans to procure the fruit after Thailand temporarily stopped imports. A government employee last year was asked to make a public apology after he critiqued low rice prices during the harvest season.

Soeng Senkaruna, a senior rights officer at Adhoc, questioned the restrictions against publishing historical images from an actual event from Cambodia’s recent past, as if authorities were suggesting the Veng Sreng protests didn’t happen.

“So this pressure isn’t a good thing. It shows Cambodia is getting more restrictive against freedom of expression.”

This story was updated on January 15 to correct that three Bodyguard Unit officers were given suspended sentences for the beating of lawmakers.

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