Cambodia’s freedom is on the decline as the ruling party strengthens its grip on power and builds a dynasty for Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to Freedom House.
The Washington-based watchdog released its “Freedom in the World 2019” report on Tuesday and placed Cambodia as one of the 10 countries in the spotlight, along with China, Iraq, and Sri Lanka, where freedom has “declined and deserved special scrutiny.”
“Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, fortified his near-total grip on power in lopsided general elections that came after authorities dissolved the main opposition party and shuttered independent media outlets,” the report reads.
Former opposition leader Kem Sokha remains under house arrest and many of his fellow Cambodia National rescue Party officials have fled overseas, fearing for their safety, after the Supreme Court dissolved the party in late 2017.
Cambodia’s aggregate score dropped 4 points to 26 out of 100. It now stands below Thailand but above Vietnam and Laos.
“It's regretful because political activists have been jailed, especially those from an important party that people see as a crucial opponent in Cambodia,” said Cambodian human rights activist Suon Bunsak.
“This is a legal issue in Cambodia... but politicians should be more tolerant to each other.”
The chilling effect is also having an impact on ordinary citizens, according to Bunsak.
“I've observed that before and after the elections until now people seem not to freely express their political views,” he said.
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) deputy Asia director, broadly agreed with the findings of the report.
“No one’s fault but Hun Sen’s and his government,” he said. “They’re the one who has systematically violated every human rights treaty that government has ever ratified.”
HRW urged the international community to take a tougher stance on Cambodia, especially the European Union. The EU has repeatedly warned Hun Sen’s government of consequences if it does not reverse course.
“The European Union needs to stand tough,” Robertson said, “They have to recognize that Hun Sen is a bully and bullies only stand down if you stand up to them.”
In the run-up to elections, Kem Ley, a popular political commentator, was assassinated in broad daylight in central Phnom Penh in 2016; the English-language Cambodia Daily newspaper was shut down over a tax dispute, and civil society organizations came under attack.
Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, one of the authors of the Paris Peace Agreement, said the backslide in democracy was his own “failure” and that of the international community.
Evans said neither ASEAN nor the UN Security Council nor the US and its allies, including Australia, are willing to apply any serious pressure on Hun Sen, despite knowing that Hun Sen has remained in power through a “sham election” and built a family dynasty on the “web of corruption” around him and “the nakedly cynical financial support the country has been receiving from China.”
“There are not many grounds for optimism that this deeply unhappy situation is going to be reversed any time soon,” he said in a speech late last year.
But Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, said Cambodia was “completely competent” and valued democracy.