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Experts Warn Cambodia Crackdown Signals Rocky Election Year Ahead

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Cambodian People's Party shows off his inked finger after voting in local elections at Takhmau polling station in Kandal province, southeast of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, June 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

A slew of arrests of opposition and civil society members in the past year indicate that the CPP plans to hold on to power at any cost in 2018.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has been intensifying its efforts to reduce the democratic space for opposition parties, civil society and the media ahead of next year’s general election, according to political analysts and human rights workers.

They warn the CPP’s legislative moves and a slew of arrests of opposition and civil society members in the past year signal that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party plans to hold on to power at any cost.

Yoeurng Sotheara, a legal and monitoring officer with COMFREL, a local election watchdog, said the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party's (CNRP) is likely to come under increasing pressure as the July 2018 polls approach.

“It’s unavoidable that we will see more repression and pressure on the opposition in the run-up to the 2018 national parliamentary elections,” he told VOA Khmer.

The CNRP made significant gains during last month’s commune elections, which were still won by the CPP with a wide margin. During the 2013 general elections, the CNRP narrowly lost to the CPP. The results were disputed and prompted large street protests that were met with violence by security forces.

Yoeurng Sotheara urged the parties to find ways to reduce tensions and avoid unrest around the 2018 elections. “As time is running short, common political wills from both major parties are needed for a peaceful Cambodia,’ he said.

The CPP seems in no mood to comprise, however. Hun Sen, who has repeatedly used force to continue his three-decade rule, repeated earlier warnings ahead of the commune elections that civil war could erupt if the CPP loses power.

In January, CPP lawmakers passed the Law on Political Parties, which granted new powers to government and judiciary to suspend and dissolve parties. The law was immediately used to pressure the CNRP and longtime opposition leader Sam Rainsy was forced to resign in February to avoid dissolution of his party.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a network of progressive lawmakers from across Southeast Asia, said the CPP is conducting a full-on crackdown on the opposition. It noted in March that 17 opposition lawmakers have been victims of harassment, lawsuits and violent attacks since July 2014. New CNRP leader Kem Sokha spent months avoiding questioning last year before being pardoned in a prostitution case against him that was widely seen as politically motivated.

Sebastian Strangio, a journalist and author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” said during an event at the Stimson Center in Washington last month that the CPP “have all the tools that they need to ensure that they hold on to power in the next elections” and that the party is “prepared to do whatever necessary.”

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan defended the government’s actions and said using the judiciary against opponents was legal and therefore fair.

“When the government uses the laws and the courts, it is accused of putting pressure on its critics, but what else can we use?” he told VOA Khmer. “If we use guns, they say we are a dictator. If we use sticks, they say that’s violence and a violation of individuals’ rights.”

Rights workers said the government has been conducting a wide-ranging crackdown that also netted members of civil society groups, the media and individual social media users.

“The arrests and jailing of political activists and human rights defenders has narrowed the civil society space - even political analysts have been under constant threat,” Cambodian Centre for Human Rights director Chak Sopheap said.

In March 2016, a 25-year-old university student was sentenced to 18 months in prison on charges of incitement following a Facebook post calling for a ‘color revolution.’

In July 2016, popular commentator and political analyst Kem Ley was fatally shot at a gas station in central Phnom Penh. A man was later arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment, but rights groups questioned the police investigation and said it had the hallmarks of a cover-up.

Early this month, four human rights workers from local group Adhoc and an election official were released on bail after having spent more than a year in pre-trial detention. They are charged with bribing a witness in a case against opposition leader Kem Sokha.

Pa Nguon Teang, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said freedom of expression is shrinking at a time when Cambodians are increasingly aware of independent and online media, and are becoming less reliant on traditional media owned by politically connected businessmen.

In recent months, two analysts, Ou Virak and Kim Sok, have faced charges of defamation and incitement after they criticized the CPP government in media interviews. Their cases, which could result in prison time and hefty fines, are pending. Kim Sok has been held in pre-trial detention since February.

A journalist from Radio Free Asia and two reporters from The Cambodia Daily, including a Canadian national, also faced potential criminal lawsuits in recent months after authorities claimed their reporting work had violated laws.

The US and the EU have expressed serious concern over laws used to target the CNRP and the spate of arrests of civil society members, but Cambodia has turned a deaf ear to Western governments in recent years as it moves towards an ever-closer relationship with China.