#Democracy U.S. Department of State
The July 2014 political agreement followed closely contested elections in 2013 and a long stand-off between the government and opposition. This agreement between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and the subsequent “Culture of Dialogue” between the parties’ leaders, brought hope that Cambodia’s democracy was on a positive trajectory. In order to secure more transparent elections, the two parties reformed the National Election Law and overhauled the National Election Committee (NEC). Recent events, however, including beatings, arrests, imprisonment of opposition supporters, and the removal of opposition MPs, have severely limited political space and are a cause for grave concern. Free and fair elections cannot happen in an environment where peaceful expression and activity by government opponents is subject to arbitrary limitations.
The “Culture of Dialogue” was meant to replace the rancor that had characterized past political discourse. It has apparently failed, as party leaders increasingly trade insults and threats. The use of violence as a political tool also has returned. On October 26, two opposition members of parliament were severely beaten following a government-orchestrated demonstration that called for the ouster of CNRP deputy Kem Sokha from his position as National Assembly vice president. The government officially condemned the violence, but then granted the request of the “demonstrators,” removing Sokha in a controversial vote. The Cambodian government’s subsequent issuance of an arrest warrant for CNRP President Sam Rainsy, followed by his ouster from the National Assembly and consequent loss of parliamentary immunity, only made matters worse. These actions recall a more authoritarian period in Cambodia’s recent past and raise serious doubts about the government’s commitment to the reforms undertaken in 2014.
In the last year, the Cambodian government also enacted a series of laws that substantially limit fundamental freedoms and undermine Cambodia’s democracy. The Law on the Election of Members of the National Assembly (LEMNA) penalizes NGOs that criticize political parties during the 21-day period set for campaigning. Meanwhile, other provisions allow security forces to take part in political campaigns. Yet other provisions make it easier for the government to strip parliamentarians of their seats—a power which the government has proven very willing to use. Similarly, the vaguely-worded Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) imposes onerous registration requirements on any “group” undertaking any “activity,” potentially subjecting all social activity to regulation. It is unclear how strictly the Cambodian government will enforce the law, though early indications are not encouraging.
The opaque legislative process that passed LEMNA and LANGO with limited public involvement continues, allowing the government to rush through other controversial laws with little stakeholder consultation. The National Assembly is set to vote on a draft Trade Union Law that includes very little input from independent labor unions and may not be compliant with International Labor Organization standards on freedom of association. The U.S. government will continue to urge transparency and accountability in the legislative process, starting with making draft laws publicly available.
Looking ahead, we are very concerned that the 2017 local and the 2018 national elections will not be free or fair and could include violence. We have strongly voiced our concerns about intimidation of the opposition, noting that the Cambodian people continue to express a preference for greater freedom and accountability from their government. We have repeatedly stressed the need for the government to allow sufficient political space for the opposition. U.S. programs will play an increasingly vital role in promoting democracy in a country where democratic values are under threat. We will support efforts to improve the electoral process, including ensuring reliable voter registration though assistance to Cambodia’s NEC. We will maintain support for Cambodia’s vibrant civil society, enabling it to continue playing its crucial role in Cambodia’s democracy.