Local and international civil society groups operating in Cambodia face government-imposed restrictions on their operations and have been significantly hindered in their work in the lead up to Sunday’s general election, according to a recent report by a U.S.-based think tank.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in its report, titled “Cambodia Civil Society at a Critical Juncture,’’ found that the Cambodian courts were the main tool used by the authorities to clamp down on civil society groups the authorities saw as challenging.
Other tactics used by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen included arbitrary arrests of activists, violent responses to peaceful civil society activities, and pressure leading to the closure of several independent media outlets.
Much of the government crackdown was framed around the Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO), passed by the government in 2015. The government claimed that the LANGO protected the rights of civil society groups, but the CSIS report argues that the law provided legal justification for coercion of civil society groups.
Sok Eysan, a ruling CPP spokesman, dismissed the CSIS report, saying the findings did not reflect the situation on the ground in Cambodia.
“Every report that does not portray the social reality in Cambodia, we [the government] do not accept it,” Sok Eysan said. “Our country is peaceful, politically stable and moving forward.”
But CSIS says the “legal framework is weaponized to defeat the CPP’s enemies.’’
In addition to the LANGO, a new lèse-majesté law was passed and new laws on “fake news” have been suggested, which the CSIS believes will further narrow the space for civil society and independent freedom of expression.
In late 2017 and early 2018, the CSIS notes that the situation had worsened as international organizations were forced to leave the country and local NGOs closed, while independent media outlets and radio stations have closed or have had their licenses revoked.
But Sok Eysan said that civil society had “applauded and welcomed” the LANGO and “only about 10 percent” were concerned by its implementation. He did not provide a source for his assertion.
Soeung Saroeun, executive director of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), an umbrella group representing some 170 NGOs in Cambodia, said the CSIS report was generally an accurate presentation of the situation in Cambodia.
Cambodia ranked 132 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index in 2017.
Lauren Mooney, co-author of the report and a CSIS researcher, said the report was based on in-depth interviews with a wide variety of stakeholders, including many civil society representatives.
“My sense is that the government may disregard the findings,” Mooney told VOA by phone.
“The [government] emphasizes that true democracy is built on economic stability instead of political and civil rights or an open space for civil society,” said Mooney.
Human rights groups have reported at least 38 politically motivated, arbitrary arrests of rights workers in recent years in Cambodia, with the real number likely higher.
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, in 2017 Hun Sen’s government was considered “authoritarian,” with the country ranked 124 out of 167 countries included in its Democracy Index.
Soeung Saroeun of the CCC said its members’ organizations would continue to work to promote human rights, democracy, and social progress, serving Cambodian citizens.