On the morning of March 20, lawmakers from Malaysia and the Philippines as well as leading regional human rights activists gathered in Bangkok to discuss fresh concerns about Cambodia.

The release of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights’ latest report – ominously titled “Death Knell for Democracy: Attacks on Lawmakers and the Threat to Cambodia’s Institutions” – documents the acceleration of persecution against Cambodian lawmakers and civil society.

It is not the first report of its kind to raise concern over Cambodia in recent years. Fears have been mounting from across the human rights community that under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Southeast Asian nation, just a few decades after emerging from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and genocide, is sliding back towards authoritarian rule.

As the report notes, a February law change giving the executive and judicial branches unprecedented powers to suspend and dissolve political parties is “the culmination of an ongoing effort to undermine the capacity of the political opposition in Cambodia.”

The law change follows politically motivated legal charges, prosecution threats and harassment against at least 17 of 66 opposition lawmakers, as well as threats of violence and reports of orchestrated physical attacks against opposition members, not to mention the suspicious murder of a leading government critic.

“Over the course of the past two years, an assault on free expression, dissent, and opposition by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has targeted nearly all segments of Cambodian political life,” the report says.

Moreover, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, a local NGO, found the effectiveness of the country’s parliament deteriorated in 2016 amid “aggravated manipulation by ruling party’s members of parliaments, against members of the opposition.”

Hun Sen, Cambodia's tough and wily prime minister, marked 30 years in power Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. He is one of only a handful of political strongmen worldwide to cling to their posts for three decades. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Afraid to go home

Vanna Hay was born in a rural area, about 40 kilometers outside of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. Today, the 30-year-old lives in Japan and works in the energy sector.

Because of his political views, he is unable to return home.

Since meeting then-opposition leader Sam Rainsy in Japan in late 2015, Vanna Hay has become an outspoken critic against Hun Sen and the CPP.

Vanna Hay believes the vast majority of Cambodians do not support the government, but most are “too afraid” to speak out.

“They are all talking on social media with their fake accounts,” he told The News Lens from Japan. “For those that use their real name, they are no longer able to go back [to Cambodia], including me. I feel so bad about it. I really miss my grandparents; I am afraid I won’t see their faces again.”

There is evidence Vanna Hay is right to be afraid.

Twenty seven people, deemed to be government critics, have been detained or imprisoned on political charges since May 2015, according to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO). That includes Kong Raya, a student leader who called for a “color revolution,” meaning non-violent protest, via his Facebook page – a month earlier Prime Minister Hun Sen had urged police to take serious action on any group attempting a color revolution.

Earlier this month, Cambodian officials threatened legal action against Vanna Hay for insulting former Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who died on March 15, in a series of Facebook posts.

Vanna Hay initially said he would counter sue but has since apologized. The episode is a reminder that for people like Vanna Hay the danger is real.

“They will sue you and take you to a prison,” he says. “They killed [government critic] Kem Lay, they arrested national assembly members [including] two teenagers, NGO staff, young activists, because they just want us to shut our mouths.”

On March 23, following a half-day trial on March 1, a Phnom Penh court found Oeuth Ang guilty of the premeditated murder of Kem Ley in July 2016 and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Oeuth Ang, thought to be in his late 30’s, has said the murder was over a US$3,000 debt. But there has been widespread speculation the murder was a political assassination. Human rights groups – including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists – say that Cambodia should continue to investigate the killing.

“It is clear that the authorities want to close the book on this case and move on but failures in the investigation of this heinous act can only serve to compound the injustice already suffered by the family of Kem Ley,” says Champa Patel, the Amnesty International Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Rainsy, considered the father of the opposition, fled Cambodia in 2016 to avoid a potential prison sentence for defamation – supporters says the charges were politically motivated – and stood down from the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in February.

Better Days: Sam Rainsy, president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), speaks to journalists at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh December 19, 2014. Cambodia's parliament had just endorsed the opposition leader as minority leader with legislative rank equal to Prime Minister Hun Sen, a rare concession by the long-serving premier to preserve a fragile political truce. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

The man at the top

While Vanna Hay says he will not shy away from publically criticizing the regime, he understands why many others do not want to be seen as causing trouble, even on their private social media channels.

“Mr. Hun Sen controls everything in Cambodia. He controls the internet company, the telephone company,” he says. “If you use a phone to talk to people, and you are popular enough, they will investigate you.”

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has ruled Cambodia since 1985. In the years since, his family has amassed a wealth of more than US$500 million, according to a July 2016 estimate by one international NGO.

While local opponents and international human rights groups have long decried what they believe to be state-sanctioned violence and corruption, foreign cash continues to flow into Cambodia. According to Human Rights Watch, China, Vietnam, and South Korea were key investors in 2016. China, Japan, and the European Union were the leading providers of development-related assistance.

But is Cambodia, left totally decimated by Khmer Rouge’s murderous regime, slowly making progress toward a developed nation under Hun Sen’s rule?

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen shake hands as they pose for a picture at the Prime Minister's office in Phnom Penh, October 13, 2016. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

Signs of progress

Over the past 15 years, Cambodia has shown the highest increase rate in the Human Development Index (HDI) across East Asia and the Pacific, reflecting improved health, education and standard of living, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

“From 1990 to 2015, Cambodia’s annual HDI growth rate of 1.84 percent has outpaced the average in East Asia and the Pacific, currently at 1.35 percent, making it among the top seven countries in the world with the fastest HDI growth rate,” UNDP said earlier this month.

GDP growth in Cambodia has been steady at about 7 percent since 2011 and is expected to remain at a similar level this year, according to World Bank Statistics.

As the Asia Development Bank (ADB) says, Cambodia, “once synonymous with conflict and poverty,” now has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia.

“In recent years, Cambodia has moved closer to lower-middle-income status through resounding economic growth,” the bank said last year. “This has been driven by solid performances in garment manufacture, tourism, paddy and milled rice, and construction.”

ADB does caution that while the poverty rate was slashed from 50 percent in 2007 to below 20 percent by 2012, about three-quarters of the country’s 15 million people still live on less than US$3 a day, which means they are highly vulnerable to falling back into poverty.

UNDP likewise says – despite what it describes as “noble gains” – there is still a need to ensure that human development is equitably distributed and that women, in particular, are included.

The Economist Intelligence Unit adds that this year “overstretched banks, the importation of tighter U.S. monetary policy and a volatile political climate” as issues that will “weigh on investment activity.”



Vanna Hay

Growth versus democracy

However, the focus on Cambodia’s economic metrics, rather than human rights and democracy, has contributed to enabling the continuation of the Hun Sen government, suggests Cambodian-born Canadian scholar Sorpong Peou. Sorpong Peou, who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime, is now a professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Canada’s Ryerson University.

“Mainstream pressure against the government is likely to remain weak because most members of the international community have been concerned about political stability, economic growth and decent socio-economic conditions,” Peou told The News Lens. “Western democracies will continue to express their dissatisfaction about the repression of democratic and human rights, but they are not likely to make a lot of noise about this – as long as the Hun Sen government does not seek to eliminate the opposition and kill people.”

Markus Karbaum is a consultant and political scientist, focusing on Cambodia’s political and socio-economic development as well as regional integration in Southeast Asia. He told The News Lens that many Cambodians, from both urban and rural areas, are increasingly “fed up” with the increasing levels of inequality. Moreover, many Cambodians, especially those who are well-educated, are questioning how society is organized and politics functions.

“These two issues have become more and more important in recent years, irrespective of the proclaimed annual GDP growth rate of 7 percent,” Karbaum says. “Most important, the Hun Sen regime is completely incapable finding proper solutions for these two challenges. Instead, they give answers similar to the 80s and 90s: threats, intimidation, and violence.”

Further, Karbaum is not convinced economic growth in Cambodia is sustainable – in a recent article for New Mandala he pointed to the country’s shrinking competitiveness and mounting pressure on the apparel industry in addition to widespread corruption and a failure to reform.

Similarly, one development expert told The News Lens that economic growth in Cambodia only benefits a small number of “urban elite” and the majority of that growth is unsustainable as it is based on the exploitation of natural resources, often associated with massive environmental degradation.

“Rural livelihoods have certainly not improved, and there is still a large share of urban people that also live in relative poverty,” says Professor Andreas Neef, director of Development Studies at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Neef believes there is a widespread discontent with Hun Sen’s government and a considerable amount of mainstream pressure.

“So far Hun Sen has managed to suppress it by employing a range of strategies – state violence being only one among many. It may be just a matter of time until the ‘pressure cooker’ bursts.”

Looking ahead to the country’s June 4 local elections, there is an opportunity for Cambodians to show their opposition to the government.

But the question remains, as Karbaum has asked, “How far is Cambodia’s prime minister willing to go to stay in power?”

Cambodia's co-prime minister Hun Sen makes an intense gesture under a portrait of King Sihanouk during a speech about the Khmer Rouge to an audience of civil servants in Phnom Penh September 16, 1996. Hun Sen defended King Sihanouk's recent royal pardon of dissident Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary saying that it was a necessary move for peace in Cambodia. (REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

Editor: Olivia Yang