Cambodia is once more treading the path to absolute rule, only four decades after the Khmer Rouge seized total power and killed as much as 25 percent of the population. And for what? To give the man who has ruled the country for 32 years a few more years in power.
The latest step: Prime Minister Hun Sen has asked the interior ministry to shut down a human rights organization: “The Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh must be closed down, because this one does what it’s told by foreigners … The Ministry of Interior should look it over because this one was created by foreigners, not by the Khmer.”
He also said: “If it’s a foreign organization that someone comes to create by asking our authorization, that’s okay, but this was by this one person of Khmer nationality, which foreigners had created to do this and do that.”
Hun Sen has been prime minister since 1985, and that fact is reflected in the corruption of his thought process. Political leaders who are long used to having their slightest whim followed or every grunt interpreted lose their capacity for reasoned argument.
Why, as Hun Sen claims, is a human rights organization founded by “this one person of Khmer nationality” but allegedly engaged in activities to meet foreigners’ objectives worse than a foreign human rights organization given authorization to work in Cambodia?
It really doesn’t make much sense. But the founder of the Center for Human Rights was Kem Sokha, the opposition leader, who worked with the Center for a few years, and who was arrested on absurd treason charges last September.
The order to shutter the Center for Human Rights forms, indeed seals, a vicious pattern. Only two weeks ago, the compliant Supreme Court of Cambodia dissolved the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party.
The CNRP had made dramatic gains in the last two elections, and was looking at making more gains in next year’s polls. Other leaders of the CNRP have been threatened with arrest, and the dissolution of the party includes five-year political bans on over a hundred party members.
The government expelled Radio Free Asia in September, and around the same time forced the closure of The Cambodian Daily newspaper, ostensibly on tax issues.
Also, according to Human Rights Watch, the government has closed “independent local radio stations; and FM stations that rebroadcast Radio Free Asia, based in Washington DC, and Voice of America’s Khmer language service. On Nov. 25, a court charged two journalists … with espionage for filing news reports to Radio Free Asia.”
Four senior staff members of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association have been arbitrarily detained and prosecuted; over 30 civil society activists have been imprisoned since May 2015, and about 20 are still in prison.
Human Rights Watch notes: “The current crackdown appears motivated by concerns that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) may lose national elections scheduled for July 29, 2018. The CNRP made significant electoral gains during both the 2013 national elections and the June 2017 commune elections. The dissolution of the CNRP means that there will be no significant opposition party to challenge the CPP in 2018.”
Not only that. Hun Sen enjoys the benefits of a cozy relationship with China. As Reuters noted in a story filed last week: “Chinese support for big-ticket projects has allowed Hun Sen to brush off Western criticism of his crackdown on dissent.
China vastly outspends the United States in a country once destroyed by Cold War superpower rivalry, and its money goes on highly visible infrastructure projects and with no demands for political reform.”
The kingdom’s own killing fields should have been warning enough.