WASHINGTON — Critics of Cambodia’s ruling party are calling Prime Minister Hun Sen’s resounding election victory on Sunday a farce, given the lack of a viable opposition party, and urging the international community to refuse to recognize the result.
As Hun Sen prepares to hand power to his eldest son, military commander and newly elected parliamentarian Gen. Hun Manet, the United States on Sunday accused the ruling party of undermining the constitution through a “pattern of threats and harassment” against its critics.
The U.S. announced that it would restrict visas for those Cambodians responsible for undermining democracy and would withhold $18 million in foreign assistance this year. And U.S. lawmakers this month reintroduced legislation to impose asset and visa restrictions on Cambodian leaders.
However, the response from the rest of the world has been comparatively muted. And opposition figures said they will press the European Union and other democracies to ramp up pressure over the deeply flawed election.
About a half dozen opposition supporters in the U.S. told VOA Khmer that they have been holding protests pushing for the U.S. to reject the election and punish the ruling party. And they point to hundreds of thousands of spoiled ballots as evidence that many Cambodians inside the country agree.
Sos Chandara, who lives in Seattle, Wash., said the U.S. and other democracies should impose visa restrictions on Cambodian officials and freeze their assets.
“We want more measures as far as possible, especially with regard to key individuals in our country,” Sos Chandara said.
“This is a big goal,” Ry Kea in Stockton, Calif. told VOA Khmer. “We will continue to push for the international community [including democracies in Asia] not to remain silent in recognizing a regime that arises from such elections."
While Hun Sen and his ruling party have long been accused of efforts to undermine democratic institutions, the 2023 national election was exceptional in the scale of threats and manipulation.
In the months ahead of the election, the CPP-stacked National Election Committee barred the main opposition Candlelight Party from participating, the Information Ministry shut down a leading independent media outlet in Voice of Democracy, and parliament amended the election law barring people who abstained from voting from running for future office.
A day after the election, authorities have reportedly arrested at least six people for spoiling ballots, while in recent months numerous opposition officials were arrested in cases they decried as politically motivated.
However, some of Hun Sen’s critics remain skeptical that most foreign governments will go beyond strongly worded statements.
Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer who represents imprisoned Cambodian-American activist Theary Seng, said countries such as Canada and Australia have so far refused to follow America’s lead in imposing sanctions.
And he doubted that any foreign government would publicly say they don’t accept the new government or dare to boycott the swearing in of the new parliament in protest.
“Which again to me is tragic, because it just sends an unequivocal signal to Hun Sen that you can pretty much get away with anything,” he told VOA Khmer ahead of the election.
Genser said that many democracies likely would temper their responses out of fear of pushing Cambodia further into China’s arms.
“But I think standing idly by and saying nothing is not going to make things better for the Cambodian people — it’s only going to make things worse,” Genser said.
Longtime opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is living in exile in France, ridiculed the CPP’s claimed election victory, in which it won 120 out of 125 seats in parliament.
“It is meaningless and useless, so such an election brings an empty victory, a ridiculous victory…that makes the independent observers laugh," Sam Rainsy told VOA Khmer.
The international community has criticized past elections as well, such as the 2018 results when the CPP won all 125 seats. Yet foreign governments still lined up outside parliament when the new government was sworn in.
Sam Rainsy argues this year will be different, pointing to the looming transfer of power from father to son as presenting an element of unpredictability that was absent from past post-election periods.
"There is a problem," he said, predicting that internal divisions within the CPP would prevent Hun Sen from following through on his plan to hand over the reins to Hun Manet within weeks of the election.
"So there are a lot of crises that will happen in 2023. So, Mr. Hun Sen’s plan to transfer power after this fake election, I believe that plan is not possible,” Sam Rainsy said.
If Hun Manet harbors any of those concerns, he wasn’t showing it on his Facebook page Monday (Hun Sen shut down his popular Facebook page earlier this month after its oversight board recommended his suspension for posting threats of violence).
Hun Manet claimed the “Cambodian people have clearly expressed their wills through votes” and promised his party would “continue to serve Cambodia and Cambodian people better and better.”
Political analyst Ly Sreysrors, who lives in Phnom Penh, said the path was clear for the long-awaited handoff, given the current lack of domestic threats to the CPP’s power.
Any “real change” would need to come from within the country, rather than from the international community, she added. But she said sustained global economic pressure on Cambodia’s government could be effective in driving dissatisfaction with the ruling party.
Even though the CPP will publicly shrug off any sanctions or loss of trade benefits, behind the scenes it is hiring lobbyists to campaign against those measures, Ly Sreysros noted.
“They can say they don't care about the international community, but…if the impact is too much for the public, that will threaten the government as well,” she added.
Still, she said it would likely be five to 10 years before a new opposition movement is able to form and seriously challenge the ruling party.
Yet the opposition supporters who spoke with VOA Khmer said the current stakes were too high to wait, not only for Cambodia but for the region and the world.
"For me, it’s very dangerous for Cambodia, and not only Cambodia, if Cambodia is under Chinese influence,’’ said Chhun Sothy in South Carolina. "China will use Cambodia as a stepping stone to rule over ASEAN countries and be able to control countries in the Indo-Pacific, then China will step on the world.”
Ry Kea, in Stockton, said like-minded opposition supporters in the Cambodian diaspora would focus their campaign on signatories of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, who committed to ensuring Cambodia’s transition to a liberal, multi-party democracy.
"So let the Cambodian people remain one with the same idea,” Ry Kea said. “We must continue to fight until there is a country, a government that is in line with our will, in accordance with the Constitution and in accordance with the Paris Peace Treaty."