Repressive governments around the world are stepping up their suppression of dissent in light of the “erosion” of U.S. democracy, a new Freedom House report says.
The report, “Freedom in the World 2018”, released on January 16, found that 2017 was the 12th consecutive year of decline in freedom globally, with 71 of the 195 countries included in the report suffering declines, including Cambodia.
“Democracy is facing its most serious crisis in decades,” the group’s president, Michael J. Abramowitz, said in a statement accompanying the report. “Democracy’s basic tenets - including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law - are under siege around the world.”
In recent months Prime Minister Hun Sen has overseen the dissolution of Cambodia’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, as well as the jailing of its leader, Kem Sokha, and a widespread crackdown on independent media and civil society.
“Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen oversaw a decisive crackdown on the country’s beleaguered opposition and press corps as his Cambodian People’s Party prepared for national elections in 2018,” the report reads.
The CNRP, the only closely real challenger to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court on November 16 after the government claimed it had conspired with a foreign power to overthrow the government.
The report also stated that democracy around the world deteriorated to its lowest point for over a decade, with the U.S.’s withdrawal from its traditional leadership role in the global struggle for press freedom and the rule of law.
“The hastening withdrawal of the United States from its historical commitment to supporting democracy overseas makes the challenge posed by authoritarian regimes all the more powerful and threatening,” said Abramowitz.
The Cambodia Daily newspaper and Radio Free Asia’s Phnom Penh news bureau were forced to shutter while more than a dozen local radio stations across the country were ordered by the government not to broadcast or relay news programs from RFA and VOA.
At least two former RFA journalists have been detained on charges of espionage and another two former Cambodia Daily reporters were charged with incitement in a separate incident.
Many critical non-governmental organizations inside the country who have criticized the government and its policies have complained of being put under surveillance.
“In the circumstances in which the U.S. president does not care about overseas democracy, Hun Sen just grabs this opportunity when he sees his party’s popularity in decline and he can no longer beat his rival, the CNRP, so he used the legal system and the rubber-stamp judiciary so that he could do whatever he wanted,” Sia Phearum, executive director of the Housing Rights Task Force, an NGO also on the government watch list, told VOA Khmer.
Sok Eysan, CPP spokesman, said he could not respond to the Freedom House report without reading it.
“They can say whatever they want as that is their freedom of expression, but that does not reflect the reality of what is going on in Cambodia now,” he said, adding that Cambodian democracy was being promoted by the government “in a peaceful and stable manner”.
But Mu Sochua, deputy president of the CNRP, who now lives in exile, said the “so-called political, economic and social stability is not true.”
“The violations on our people’s rights are getting worse these days, like the death of democracy, so there must be a resolution to the political problem involving human rights and democracy.”
The report also criticized U.S. President Donald Trump, saying he had expressed feelings of admiration and even personal friendship for some of the world’s most reviled strongmen and dictators.
“A major development of 2017 was the retreat of the United States as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy,” Abramowitz wrote.
“The world’s leading autocracies, China and Russia, have seized the opportunity not only to step up internal repression but also to export their malign influence to other countries, which are increasingly copying their behavior and adopting their disdain for democracy,” he added.
However, Eysan said Cambodian democracy did not follow the path of any particular country.
“I think [Cambodian] democracy has its own uniqueness and thus is different from one country to another,” he said. “We cannot say one country copied another. So, Cambodia did not follow an example of any country, not the U.S. nor any other country. No matter how broad or narrow democracy that country has, it is not related to Cambodia.”