U.S. civil society groups have encouraged their Cambodian counterparts to continue to resist the ongoing government crackdown against political opposition and civil society that has seen NGOs and media targeted.
Three heads of NGOs in Cambodia were charged last week with breach of trust over the management of the funding for the funeral of slain political analyst Kem Ley, who was assassinated in 2016. Another three NGOs remain on the government watch list for their criticism of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Cambodia is home to more than 3,000 NGOs which provide a wide range of services where government support is lacking.
Amid the crackdown, the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute was ordered to leave the country and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, formed by the jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha, was almost ordered to close after more than a quarter of a century of operations.
Other critical civil society groups have been forced to close their offices or suspend activities, fearing a possible shutdown, while other NGO leaders have fled the country over fears of arrest.
Three prominent civil society leaders who face legal action if caught -- Pa Nguon Teang, director of Cambodian Center for Independent Media; But Buntenh, founder of Independent Monk Network for Social Justice; and Meoun Tola, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights -- could not be reached for comment.
Laura Rosenberger, director of the US-based Alliance for Securing Democracy, told VOA Khmer on the sidelines of a panel discussion in Washington, DC at the launch of Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World 2018” report, that the “vibrancy” of the Cambodian people was the “best thing that can ultimately push forward democracy and freedom in Cambodia.”
Hun Sen has in recent months overseen the dissolution of the main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, and the jailing of Sokha on treason charges. More than 100 CNRP officials have been barred from politics for five years, while many succumbed to fear and intimidation tactics and defected ahead of a contentious general election in July that could further cement CPP rule.
“I have a lot of confidence in Cambodian civil society and it's very important for Cambodian civil society to be strong and try to resist the best they can,” Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, told VOA Khmer.
Separately, Sia Phearum, executive director of the Housing Rights Task Force, one of the three NGOs under government watch list, said even minor action in the current climate could lead to legal action. “Let along rallying to criticize the government. Just sharing a Facebook post can land you in jail,” he said. “This is what the current illegitimate government is doing; it is moving to the same status as North Korea.”
“Civil society has nothing to defend themselves, unlike dictators. The dictator group has weapons, jails and the courts of all sorts. So, we can only train more activists so that they can stand up against the dictators,” he added.
Hun Sen has repeatedly dismissed criticism of the crackdown as unimportant and said upcoming elections do not require approval from Western countries.
John Norris of the Center for American Progress, a research and advocacy organization, said: “When you feel the system is under threat, then you begin to take extraordinary measures that might go outside the system itself.”
Soeung Senkaruna, a senior investigator with Cambodian rights group Adhoc, said the government should ensure that all Cambodians were able to exercise their right to vote for a candidate of their choosing at the election.
“The government needs to make sure its citizens can participate and compete in all political activities, as enshrined in all international elections procedures, not the one set up by any particular group or individual or political party as it wants,” he said.
However, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the government was acting “in accordance with the existing laws and democratic principles.”
“The legal measures taken against the opposition leader and its senior officials were to strengthen democracy, not to undermine or damage it,” he added.