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Lessons in Resistance: Defying repression and impunity in Cambodia

Cambodia will hold its sixth general election on 29 July – despite the dissolution of the main opposition party and amid concerns of a weakened democracy, as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Prime Minister Hun Sen continues to curtail free speech and other civil liberties.

Overcoming these challenges is a difficult task, but civil society groups, the independent media, and grassroots activists have shown resilience in the past several months, struggling hard to push for reforms in governance, the protection of human rights, and the reversal of laws that are impeding the country’s transition to democracy.

Cambodia's National Election Committee official uses a bottle of indelible ink to mark a finger during a briefing on the voting process in Phnom Penh on July 17, 2018
Cambodia's National Election Committee official uses a bottle of indelible ink to mark a finger during a briefing on the voting process in Phnom Penh on July 17, 2018


Democracy under attack

CPP lost a significant number of seats in the 2013 general election. People were feeling dissatisfied with the government of Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since 1985. Four years later, the CPP failed again to dominate the commune council elections. Perhaps the government sensed which way the wind of popular opinion was blowing; in any case, before the end of 2017, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was disbanded by the Supreme Court, after the ruling party accused its leaders of treason.

From suppression of the opposition, to blocking access to information and criminalizing expression.

The year 2017 also saw the closure of dozens of radio stations across the country which broadcast programs critical of the government. Some media companies tagged for 'biased' reporting were slapped with hefty tax fines, while others had their reporters arrested on espionage charges.

The government enacted a Lèse Majesté (anti-Royal Insult) law, while intensifying cybercrime-related arrests.

Two months before the scheduled elections, the government issued a restrictive code of conduct for reporters and a separate regulation (prakas) expanding social media and internet controls in the country.

Clearly, these repressive measures were intended to silence the opposition, undermine the work of media, and instill fear among the people.

But Cambodians have found other ways of circumventing these restrictions which enabled them to continue speaking out against threats to democracy and other abuses committed by those in power.

The dilemma faced by most civil society groups today: Will they speak out and risk being shut down completely? Or will they let it pass in the hope of being able to continue advancing Cambodia’s human rights situation in the long run?

Civil society fights back

Despite the heightened repression ahead of the elections, around 116 local groups signed a statement criticizing the ministerial order on the media as a threat to the privacy rights and freedom of expression of every single internet and social media user in Cambodia and that it “further diminishes the limited space left for public debate following months of attacks on media freedoms.”

What this statement does not show is the dilemma faced by most civil society groups today: Will they speak out and risk being shut down completely? Or will they let it pass in the hope of being able to continue advancing Cambodia's human rights situation in the long run?

The deteriorating political situation has forced many groups to review their methods, to focus more on safer communication, enhanced security practices, and more effective lobbying campaigns, both inside and outside the country.

Many have continued to expand their networks in rural and urban poor communities, reaching out to more workers, youth, women, and farmers resisting displacement.

Some have found ways to highlight the issue of impunity without directly confronting authorities. This was evident as groups continue to actively commemorate the legacy of renowned analyst Kem Ley, gunned down in Phnom Penh two years ago.

But what has also been affirmed by civil society groups is the power of solidarity in their campaigns for democracy and human rights – as shown for instance by the unified stance of over 100 groups against the government's new media regulation.

Solidarity is also strategic. “We have made more use of joint actions in order to have more impact, but also to lessen the chances of reprisals,” said Chak Sopheap, Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, one of IFEX's member organisations in Cambodia, and a group that has itself been targeted.

“More solidarity between civil society organizations has grown out of this tough situation, creating a support network which has been invaluable in making sure that groups can continue their work in Cambodia,” she added.

The struggle of independent media

Crucial to the success of any civil society campaign is the wide dissemination of their advocacy messages. This was a hugely important role for both old and new media, and it explains why the government has been relentless in intimidating media companies which refuse to uncritically support the ruling party.

Indeed, the work of prominent news companies such as The Cambodia Daily and Radio Free Asia (RFA) was gravely affected when the government decided to pursue legal actions against them. The sale of the English daily Phnom Penh Post to an investor who had previously worked on a project involving Prime Minister Hun Sen also meant the demise of the country's last independent newspaper.

But they have not been silenced. Former reporters of the Cambodia Daily and disgruntled staffers of the Phnom Penh Post continue to live and work in Cambodia as freelance journalists. Their stories, published in alternative news websites, underscore what Cambodians experience and endure every day.

The Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), another IFEX member in the country, acknowledges that the media climate has created fear and cynicism, but this also inspired them to be more aggressive in training citizen journalists – people who have since become valued community correspondents providing first-hand information to various news companies.

Furthermore, despite the closure of its radio stations and its office in Phnom Penh, and the arrest of its two reporters for espionage, RFA insists that it continues to provide full coverage of issues affecting the Cambodian people.

“Gathering and verifying information have been challenging for us due to the media clampdown, which has scared off some of our sources and resulted in less cooperation from local authorities in verifying information. But some of our traditional sources inside Cambodia continue to bank on us to channel to the public critical information which the local media often do not report on following government restrictions and harassment,” said Rohit Mahajan, a press officer with RFA.

He credited this to the group's diverse sources, both within the government and among the public, who remain anonymous but are reliable in providing information about the situation on the ground.

Ironically, earlier this month the Cabinet spokesperson encouraged other officials to speak to RFA, saying there was no gag order on government officials wishing to share information and official views with the news company.

RFA, like most independent media platforms in Cambodia, thrives by relying on the internet – especially on popular social media platforms like Facebook – to reach a broader audience. This is the primary reason why the government has ordered a stricter regulation of the cyberspace.

Postponement of elections

The CNRP is also maximizing the potential of the internet to rally its supporters and call for the boycott of the elections through its 'clean finger' campaign. Despite the detention of CNRP leader Kem Sokha, party members across the country are still campaigning for reforms.

CNRP's exiled leaders are also conducting intensive lobbying with international institutions such as the European Union (EU) and the United Nations.

Mu Sochua, a CNRP official, told IFEX that the party is calling for a postponement of the elections for six months, so that all stakeholders can freely participate in the electoral process.

She said that the Hun Sen government should work towards achieving an environment conducive to free and fair elections by releasing Kem Sokha, reinstating the CNRP, and allowing the media and civil society to perform their roles without fear of persecution.

International pressure

Echoing most of the demands of civil society groups and the CNRP are members of the international community, which have been engaging the Hun Sen government to uphold democracy and human rights.

Recently, an EU mission in Cambodia reported on “the serious decline in the area of political and electoral rights, as well as a curbing of civil society activities.” Its initial statement also confirmed that “there are deficiencies when it comes to land dispute resolution mechanisms, and serious threats to freedom of association and collective bargaining rights” in the country.

It is still uncertain whether the EU will impose trade sanctions on Cambodia. This would be considered a “measure of last resort”, because of economic ramifications that would affect the livelihoods of ordinary citizens.

But what the EU, the UN, and other global watchdogs can do, now, is review and update their previous resolutions and reports on Cambodia, and to urge the Hun Sen government to reverse its repressive policies and unconditionally respect plural democracy, transparent governance, freedom of expression, and open elections.

Whether Cambodians will vote or avoid going to the polling stations in record numbers remains to be seen. But whatever happens on election day, it's undeniable that there remains much to be done before full democracy is realized in Cambodia.

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