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Ruling party won national election that excluded opposition and leader Hun Sen announced resignation after 38 years in power.
PM Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed “landslide” victory in national elections held 23 July. U.S. same day called polls “neither free nor fair” and EU next day criticised elections that were held in “restricted political and civic space” and “excluded important sectors of the opposition”; Election Commission in May had ruled that main opposition Candlelight Party could not partake in polls on “concocted administrative grounds”, according to Human Rights Watch. Hun Sen 26 July announced resignation as PM after almost four decades in power and intention to hand position to his son Hun Manet on 10 August, but said he would continue as head of ruling party.
Citing COVID-19 outbreak, National Assembly in which PM Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party holds all 125 seats 10 April unanimously passed state of emergency law, which allows govt to put in place broad range of measures in times of war or pandemics, including restrictions on people’s movement, communications, and distribution of information, with penalties of up to ten years imprisonment. Constitutional Council 27 April approved law, despite public criticism that it could be used to restrict civil and political freedoms. NGO Human Rights Watch 29 April reported that authorities “are using the Covid-19 pandemic to carry out arbitrary arrests of opposition supporters and govt critics”, said that police had arrested at least 30 people for allegedly spreading false information and other offenses between Jan and April, including one third linked to now-dissolved opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party.
Reports emerged of renewed crackdown by authorities against individuals linked with banned opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), including calling 25 former party officials to appear for questioning at Battambang provincial court, accused of violating 2017 Supreme Court ruling dissolving party. Rights groups called for investigation into death in police custody of son of a CNRP activist in April.
EU 5 Oct notified Cambodia that it would initiate process to withdraw Cambodia’s “Everything But Arms” trade preferences due to deterioration of human rights in kingdom. Without clear improvements, Cambodia set to lose $676mn annually to EU tariffs affecting 40% of exports. Cambodia called move “an extreme injustice”. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini met with PM Hun Sen 18 Oct on sidelines of Asia-Europe Summit in Brussels, raising EU concerns about rights situation in Cambodia; told reporters she did not hear anything that would avert sanctions.
Amid wave of pardons for govt opponents following July general election, in which Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all 125 parliamentary seats, court 10 Sept granted bail to former Cambodian National Rescue Party (CRNP) leader Khem Sokha, jailed Sept 2017 and awaiting trial for treason, and placed him under house arrest.
Election commission 15 Aug announced official results confirming ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s sweep of all 125 seats in July election. U.S. same day announced expansion of restrictions on visas for Cambodian officials it deems responsible for what it called “anti-democratic actions taken in the run-up to the flawed July 29 election”. Govt pardoned almost two dozen prisoners in second half of month in perceived attempt to appease external critics, including former lawmaker, two former Radio Free Asia journalists, jailed Oct 2017 on espionage charges, and fourteen govt critics, most former members of dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) convicted in 2014. Supreme Court 22 Aug denied bail to jailed CNRP leader Kem Sokha, arrested Sept 2017 on charges of treason and yet to be tried. Fourteen former CRNP members pardoned 27 Aug after three years in jail.
PM Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all 125 seats in 29 July general election marked by voter intimidation and manipulation. Final vote count expected 15 Aug. Twenty parties registered to compete, but govt dissolved main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party Nov 2017. UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith 20 July expressed concern over reports of voter intimidation, particularly statements by officials that abstaining from vote is illegal, and threats to withhold services from communities that do not support CPP. White House released statement declaring election “neither free nor fair”, and Australia expressed “disappointment that Cambodian people have been unable to freely choose their representatives”.
Amid ongoing concerns over govt crackdown on opposition parties and politicians, Transparency International Cambodia 20 June announced it will not monitor 29 July general elections, joining two other election NGOs who earlier decided against monitoring polls. Asian Network for Free Elections 14 June released report from May pre-election assessment saying elections will be neither free nor fair, citing inter alia intimidation of voters and lack of protection of civil and political rights. Govt 27 June said 50,000 observers, including from China, Myanmar and Singapore, will monitor polls. U.S. 12 June imposed sanctions on Hing Bun Hieng, commander of PM Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, citing unit’s involvement in violence against unarmed Cambodians dating back to 1997. Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe visited Cambodia 17-20 June, pledged over $1mn military aid; countries agreed to increase military cooperation and conduct visit by Chinese navy in 2019. Prosecutor 20 June summoned exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy to face charge of lèse-majesté for 6 June Facebook post in which he claimed that a recent letter from King Norodom Sihamoni was written under duress.
National Election Committee 14 May announced that twenty political parties had registered ahead of 29 July general election. Govt 24 May said that organising election boycott violates electoral law and will lead to prosecution. Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, an independent vote monitor, 15 May announced it would not deploy observers to polls for general election. UN Special Rapporteur to Cambodia Rhona Smith 30 April issued statement calling for release of detained leaders of Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which govt dissolved in Nov 2017; also called for end to crackdown on political opposition and for CNRP to be reinstated, and for country’s rulers to return to “constitutional path of multi-party democracy and genuine elections”. UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention late April called for former CNRP leader Kem Sokha, arrested Sept 2017, to be released from prison.
In 3 April statement PM Hun Sen claimed his govt had thwarted “colour revolution” planned by now-dissolved opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and its Western backers. Former CNRP parliamentarian denied accusation, saying it was intended to cause confusion. Addressing students in Phnom Penh 10 April, Hun Sen said that anti-govt group Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF), based in Denmark, planned to detonate bombs in capital and in Siem Reap province 12 April around traditional New Year celebrations. Opposition leaders continued calls to boycott general election planned for 29 July if CNRP is not reinstated and allowed to field candidates.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court 5 March extended pre-trial detention of jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha for up to an additional six months; Sokha was arrested in Sept 2017 and charged with treason. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein 7 March told Human Rights Council he is “seriously concerned at increasing moves to repress dissent and close political and civil society space” in Cambodia. UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, 14 March called on govt to repeal Nov 2017 ban on opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). At UN Human Rights Council in Geneva 22 March, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore described “serious deterioration” of human rights in Cambodia. Australia, Canada, EU, France, Norway, Sweden, U.S. and several NGOs also expressed concern and decried intimidation of govt critics, while China and Venezuela defended Cambodia. 45 countries endorsed statement 21 March expressing “deep concern about the recent serious decline of civil and political rights in Cambodia”.
Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 58 out of 62 Senate seats at 25 Feb election conducted by MPs and commune councillors, which members of dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) called a “sham”. National Assembly 14 Feb approved constitutional amendments and changes to criminal code, including lèse majesté law carrying punishment of up to five years’ prison and fine for insulting monarchy; justice minister said it will apply to media outlets carrying defamatory content and to journalists. Other amendments include requiring political parties to “place the country and nation’s interests first” and forbidding individuals from “undermining the country’s interest”. Senate approved changes 21 Feb. Bipartisan group of U.S. senators 8 Feb introduced Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment (CARI) Act imposing conditions on assistance to Cambodia, expanding visa ban on officials, freezing assets of senior officials, and prohibiting debt relief, until “free and fair parliamentary elections have taken place” including “full and unimpeded participation” of dissolved opposition party. In 21 Feb speech, Hun Sen promised to pursue and beat up protesters if they burn effigies of him at March summit of ASEAN leaders in Sydney, Australia. Germany 22 Feb suspended preferential visas for private travel by members of Cambodia’s govt in response to its crackdown on opposition and civil society, and encouraged other EU member states to impose similar measures. EU Foreign Affairs Council 26 Feb expressed deep concern over “recent worrying political developments and the continuing deterioration of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law, including the escalating repression of the opposition, media and civil society”.
Former leader of now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy, 13 Jan issued statement announcing establishment of Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM), which will organise opposition to govt of PM Hun Sen. Statement called for fair elections and release from prison of Kem Sokha, last leader of CNRP, arrested in Sept 2017. State officials suggested CNRM was tantamount to rebel group; interior ministry 16 Jan said it was founded by “illegal rebels” and warned that those joining group could face legal action. Hun Sen celebrated 33 years in power on 14 Jan; on 16 Jan appointed his son-in-law, Dy Vichea, to post of deputy national police chief.
PM Hun Sen’s crackdown on dissent, launched in August, continued, with civil society groups, unions, NGOs and media facing increasing pressure and harassment from authorities, prompting further international condemnation. U.S. 7 Dec announced visa restrictions on officials it deems involved in “undermining democracy”; UN special rapporteur on human rights called for end to pressure on civil society and restoration of multiparty democracy; EU 12 Dec suspended funding for general election scheduled for July 2018. Electoral commission late Dec said China had committed to provide equipment for July election following withdrawal of EU and U.S. support. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy visited Phnom Penh 13 Dec, did not meet with any ministers; said still time for govt to reverse course and hold free and fair general election; denied allegations by PM Hun Sen and other senior officials that U.S. backed plot to bring down Cambodian govt. European Parliament 14 Dec passed resolution urging European External Action Service and European Commission to consider visa sanctions and freezing assets of officials involved in dissolution of opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). Ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) early Dec claimed 90% of dissolved CNRP’s 5,007 seats at commune level, now holds over 95% of seats at commune level. Govt late Nov pressured former CNRP members at commune level to join CPP; Hun Sen urged party members to “break the legs” of defunct CNRP.
Supreme Court 16 Nov dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and banned more than 100 CNRP members from politics for five years, ending party opposition to PM Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of general election scheduled for July 2018. CPP-led govt filed suit in Oct alleging that CNRP attempted to overthrow govt in U.S.-backed plot. EU 16 Nov announced it will review Cambodia’s eligibility for preferential trade access under its “everything-but-arms” scheme; U.S. Senate unanimously passed resolution calling on Treasury and State departments to consider targeted sanctions on senior Cambodian officials. White House issued statement saying: “On current course, next year’s election will not be legitimate, free or fair” and announced end to U.S. support for Cambodian National Election Committee. Beijing 17 Nov said China supported Cambodia as it pursues its own development path. Interior ministry 20 Nov confirmed that some civil society groups and their members are being monitored. Hun Sen warned that Cambodian Center for Human Rights, founded by jailed former CNRP President Kem Sokha, should be closed down for “following foreigners”.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy returned from self-imposed exile 10 February after receiving royal pardon for allegations against PM Hun Sen and National Assembly leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh; pardon followed Rainsy apology. International donor meeting scheduled to start 3 March.
Fears of return to authoritarian rule as PM Hun Sen continued to target political opponents with defamation lawsuits. Charges dropped against 4, but exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy still faces 18-month prison sentence.
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