Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen lauded himself for the 2017 ban of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in a New Year’s address Thursday, saying the group had sought to sow chaos in the country, while observers urged both sides to pursue political reconciliation for the good of the nation.
Ahead of the April 14-16 observation of the Cambodian New Year, or Choul Chnam Thmey, Hun Sen thanked King Norodom Sihamoni, the armed forces, civil servants, and the people of Cambodia for their support.
He pledged to work on improving all aspects of the country, while ensuring peace, maintaining national integrity, protecting Cambodia’s territory, and preventing any interference in the nation’s internal affairs.
“The government is strongly taking action against any color revolution attempts or incitement against the constitution and democratic principles that contribute to instability, including political and social chaos,” he said.
“As a result, Cambodia has maintained its security, independence, national integrity, and territory, and avoided any unwarranted disaster.”
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017 and barred its members from taking part in political activities, two months after the arrest of party president Kem Sokha for his role in an alleged scheme to topple Hun Sen’s government. The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s 2018 general election.
Since then, dozens of CNRP officials and supporters have either fled abroad or been rounded up by authorities for “incitement” after expressing views critical of Hun Sen’s rule.
The world’s longest-serving prime minister at 36 years, Hun Sen and his party stand virtually unopposed ahead of commune elections next year and general elections set for July 2023.
Call for reconciliation
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday, Klaing Bunlay, the CNRP’s chief in Bangkok, Thailand, said that Hun Sen’s message is “meant to split Cambodian unity” because he is “afraid of the CNRP’s continued existence and influence.” He said that the opposition party continues to draw support because the people of Cambodia “want social justice.”
“Hun Sen’s message does not come from the heart,” he said. “Hun Sen has ignored the needs of the people and persecuted them, actions which have caused pain.”
Soeung Sengkaruna, spokesman for Cambodian rights group Adhoc, said that opposition and ruling party leaders should take the opportunity during Choul Chnam Thmey to exchange best wishes and work to resolve the country’s political stalemate.
He said Hun Sen’s message could create more pressure, negatively impacting the people, economy, and the country’s development.
“We don’t want to see any harm to Cambodia. We want to see a proper democracy, consisting of a power challenge through mutual understanding,” he said.
“The winner should win with dignity and the loser should accept the results so that people can exercise their rights according to the constitution and the state can guarantee those rights.”
Political analyst Kim Sok told RFA that Hun Sen’s message was also aimed at calming down a public that has endured difficult living conditions amid an economic downturn fueled by the country’s latest and deadliest outbreak of the coronavirus.
He said that Choul Chnam Thmey is a time for Hun Sen to deliver a message of national reconciliation for the sake of people so that the country can work on restoring the economy when the pandemic ends.
Cambodia, which had largely remained unscathed by the coronavirus in 2020, registered its first death from COVID-19—the disease caused by the virus—last month, a year to the day that that the World Health Organization labeled it a pandemic. Since then, 24 people have died, and Cambodia’s caseload has reached more than 3,000 people.
Scathing assessment of governance
Hun Sen’s address came as London-based rights group Amnesty International issued a scathing assessment of his governance in an annual report, highlighting an intensification in 2020 of what it called “extreme restrictions on civil and political rights implemented since 2017.”
The group called out a controversial State of Emergency Law, enacted under the pretext of fighting the spread of the coronavirus, which it said, “severely impinges upon human rights.”
Also in 2020, human rights defenders, peaceful demonstrators, and members of the CNRP continued to face harassment and intimidation through a justice system beholden to the government, while women’s rights came under “sustained attack” after Hun Sen led a campaign to punish those who did not adhere to an arbitrary interpretation of “tradition” and “culture.”
“Members of the banned CNRP faced continued arbitrary criminalization and increasing levels of physical violence,” the group said.
“Judicial harassment against former CNRP politicians and activists intensified in November as at least 126 CNRP-affiliated individuals were summoned in a series of politically-motivated mass trials on treason and incitement-related charges.”
Amnesty noted that several CNRP officials and activists were the targets of severe physical assaults, and that authorities had failed to arrest or investigate anyone for the attacks.
The group also slammed the country’s Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO), which it said continued to be used to stifle freedom of association, as well as the arbitrary detention and physical assaults of environmental activists working to expose illegal logging by state authorities and corporate actors.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.