Elections in Cambodia: Redirecting Forces of Repression into Winds of Change

Rintoul AndrewBy Andrew Rintoul

As the sun rose over Boeung Tompun in Phnom Penh on a Saturday morning, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporters began arriving in droves. This was the first day of the campaign period, with the elections still several weeks away. Tuk-tuks, moto-bikes, and vehicles were all emblazoned with CNRP motifs while matching hats, shirts and flags were passed around the 10,000 supporters present. Through the lens of a DSLR, I observed supporters celebrating and dancing, honking their horns loudly as smiling spectators waived and asked for party hats to be thrown their way. I listened to the cheers and calls for change in Khmer and popular Cambodian pop songs dubbed over with CNRP-supporting lyrics. I heard a recorded speech of Sam Rainsy, former CNRP leader and now exiled man due to spurious criminal charges pressed against him in Cambodia, through a loud-speaker hitched to the top of a Jeep.

The mood was festive, the people were excited and passionate under the 40-degree sun, and the diverse amalgam of security personnel and military police under the auspices of the CPP did nothing but stand idly by as songs were sung late into the evening.

CNRP supporters cheer in Phnom Penh

It has been nearly one month since the country took to the polls for the first time since 2013. The ruling party, eventually settling on the current name, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has held power in the country since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. For over three decades, Prime Minister Hun Sen has sat at the head of this regime, carefully crafting his image as a pseudo-deity and a generous and supreme leader. His heavy-handed policies and powerful military arm and security forces have been instrumental in maintaining this lustre and preserving the power of his party.

Four years ago, this armour revealed an unexpected crack as the general elections witnessed an extremely close race between the CPP and what has come to be the main opposition, the CNRP. Following results depicting a slight victory for the CPP, CNRP members and outside observers demanded accountability and argued election-rigging. Yet, in what appears to be familiar Hun Sen-style, the storm eventually blew over and the CNRP, which had boycotted the National Assembly for a year, finally came back into the fold and returned as the opposition.

It is this tumultuous political climate that provided the backdrop for the lead-up to the commune elections of June 4th. In the past four years, the voices of opposition supporters and any calls for change disruptive to the status quo have faced a string of new repressive legislation designed specifically for suppressing dissent. Under the guise of vague language such as public order, national security, incitement, colour revolutions, and confusion, new laws have created an arsenal of inaccessible rules giving authorities the capacity to manipulate and arbitrarily apply them to their liking. Human rights defenders are increasingly targeted and vulnerable, as are the organizations which set out to defend them.

CNRP rally through Phnom Penh

The streets seemed eerily quiet on the morning of June 4th. When I arrived at the office, citizens across the country had already been voting for thirty minutes. I quickly took a seat at my desk alongside several others to assist in running the organization’s live-stream of the event as reports and photos from monitors in the field began flooding in. In the afternoon, I accompanied a senior lawyer to a polling station and observed the last of the voters trickling in, followed by a closed-door counting of the ballots. Moments before the counting began, voters had been ushered out of the premises by heavily-armed security personnel who stood guard at the gates until the ballots were fully counted and relocated in transport vehicles.

Security guards sit at a polling station in Phnom Penh

In the weeks following the elections, the atmosphere in the capital has taken on a much different tone. The energy of the pre-election period has faded, likely to come back ten-fold in the national elections next year. According to the official results released last week, the ruling party maintained its grip on power by a large margin, in line with the expected result. Though not victorious, the opposition party made massive gains from the last commune elections, moving from winning only 40 communes in 2012 (combining the wins of the two parties who merged the following year to become the CNRP) to winning 489 out of the 1646 communes this year. Despite its apparently poor performance in the 2012 commune elections, the CNRP still took home 44.46% of the popular vote in the 2013 general elections to the CPP’s 48.83% of the vote; with twelve times more communes won this year, a continuation of the trend could mean a strong victory by the opposition in 2018.

It remains to be seen exactly what the ruling party has in store for the country in the lead-up to next year’s general elections. Certainly, much of this is dependent upon the actions and movements of civil society and the opposition party in the months to come. A glimpse into what may be in store occurred last week as Prime Minister Hun Sen called upon the Interior Ministry to investigate the legality and neutrality of an NGO collective after they reported several concerns over the recent elections. Amidst the uncertainty of the immediate future lies an inevitable truth; repressive legislation and targeted crackdowns will persist, but as they do, they will be met with a resilient and robust civil society capable of redirecting forces of repression into winds of change.

A First Blog Entry from a LICADHO Intern: Arrival and First Few Tasks

2014-Couloumbe-JonathanBy Jonathan Coulombe

It’s been a little more than a Month since I started my internship at the LICADHO in Phnom Penh. The adaptation to the hectic capital city of Cambodia took some time, but I settled into a nice little routine and now enjoy some of its charms while I focus on my work during week days.

licadho office

Speaking of work, I arrived in Cambodia during important times and events regarding freedom of assembly in the country. This, as I would find out, would be the major topic of the year with regards to human rights. In fact, the government had issued a ban on public gatherings on early January, following massive protests from Garment workers and human rights activists. This ban has now been set aside, but gatherings and marches are each time met with heavy forces in order to intimidate the people.

I came in Cambodia during the hearings of high profile cases regarding crackdowns that occurred during these marches at the beginning of the year. While this timely arrival delayed my internship, LICADHO not having the human resources to welcome me among its team, the NGO recommended that I followed the events closely, which I did (I will post an entry specifically on the subject shortly).  As I started, we could sense that the organization was recovering from a long struggle the drained its time and energy.

That said, my tasks here since I started mostly consisted of helping the staff to get back on track with most of their activities. This is how I helped LICADHO as of today. I was asked to assist the organization in compiling data and writing different sections for its 6-month report. I also transcribed notes from the testimonies of the trials for the 23 accused of the high profile cases, to be put to use on a later date when we will focus on the defence for the appeal (which will surely happen).

I was also tasked on written a graphic report on the different Police forces, what distinguishes one from the others, and their powers and limitations. This is quite important for people are confused in light of the enormous amount of departments, jurisdictions, and uniforms. More importantly, some forces do not have the power to arrest people unless a flagrant crime is committed in front of them. However, as Cambodians do not know their rights and the limitations of these forces, officers may abuse their power and illegally arrest or detain people.

Other small tasks have consisted, for the moment, on working on the photo database, doing research for land eviction cases, supporting detainees in Municipal court, and monitoring protests.

These are interesting and changing times for Cambodia. My position in LICADHO enables me to learn rapidly and in depths about the occurring events. Hence, through this blog I will be sure to address some issues specifically. Stay tune for the next few entries…

Some news from Phnom Penh

patrickBy Patrick Reynaud

The first few weeks in Cambodia have been quite fascinating.

I am working at The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, known as LICADHO. This is one of the most prominent human rights NGOs in the country, founded in 1992 by Dr. Kek Galabru. LICADHO is very active on a varied number of fronts pertaining to the promotion and defense of human rights. Prominent issues recently have included abusive expropriations, also known as land grabs, performed by government authorities on behalf of business interests either closely linked or forming an integral part of the current governance structure. Significant and sometimes violent relocalizations of entire communities, without proper compensation, have abounded in recent years, both in Phnom Penh and the provinces. Another important area of activity for LICADHO of late concerns threats by government authorities against human rights defenders.

Unfortunately, community representatives, journalists, NGO members, monks and many other individuals who voice their opinion against the government on various issues, including land grabs, have found themselves imprisoned. Common charges include disinformation or incitement, which are criminal offenses and are used by public prosecutors in order to silence government critics, as well as political opposition. Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition against the Cambodian People’s Party of longstanding Prime Minister Hun Sen, escaped abroad after being charged with destruction of property and incitement by the courts. Mu Suchua, another prominent opposition politician was recently charged with defamation against Hun Sen, for holding a press conference where she accused the Prime Minister of defamation. She has refused to pay the fine, and is likely to be imprisoned shortly for contempt of court.

These problems highlight what appears to be an endemic and recurring issue, namely the lack of a consistent rule of law in Cambodia. The executive branch seems to wield a heavy influence with the judiciary. Issues of impartiality and corruption unfortunately abound. The legislative structure is arguably in place to ensure respect for human rights and the democratic process. What lacks is an independent judicial authority to enforce laws.

For instance, judge Ney Thol, a longstanding President of the Military Court and member of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party Central Committee, is best known for presiding at two major trials where Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political opponents were convicted of national security related crimes. In 1998, he sentenced then opposition leader Norodom Rinariddh to 30 years imprisonment. Later, in 2005, he condemned opposition politician Cheam Channy to 7 years of detention. During this trial he barred defense lawyers from calling witnesses and interrupted their cross-examination of prosecution witnesses. Judge Ney Thol is now a member of the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), an international tribunal responsible for trying former Khmer Rouge leaders involved in the genocide that occured in the late 1970s.

Although the most prominent cases include opposition politicians, many individuals critical to the current regime have unfortunately been condemned of or threatened with spurious legal charges. The most recent trend for intimidation involves the release of human rights defenders on bail. Pending charges will often not proceed to trial, but niether will they be dropped, to serve as a tool guaranteeing the good behavior of those released.

A recent personal experience highlighted issues pertaining to official authorities. I was unfortunately stopped by police on a Phnom Penh boulevard while riding my motorcycle. The policeman promptly demanded $50, while threatening to confiscate my vehicle and to bring me to the local police station. An interesting negotiation session ensued, whereby the informal payment was reduced to $5 for the multiple driving offenses I was ostensibly guilty of. The most effective way to avoid dealing with local authorities is to ignore their summons to pull over when apprehended; unfortunately the particular layout forced me to stop the vehicle. Police as civil servants are poorly and irregularly paid, and as a result most fines are informal payments meant to complement their income.

Another worrisome trend has been the Cambodian government’s repeated intention to pass a law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, commonly known as NGO law. The official purpose of the law would be to curb crime and corruption on the part of NGOs, as well as to prevent terrorist activity, both of which are already dealt with under the penal code and anti-terrorist legislation. The law would most likely be used to restrict freedom of association by denying registration to NGOs critical of government policies.

Working at LICADHO has been quite interesting. My coworkers are warm and welcoming. I have travelled to the south and Sihanoukeville with some colleagues, as well as Kirirom National Park, as the motorcycle gives an easy opportunity to travel on week-ends. The country is quite beautiful, and I naturally look forward to visiting the north and Angkor Wat later in August.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.