Cambodia - Politics

Rights groups have accused Hun Sen—the longest serving leader of any Southeast Asian country—of suppressing dissent and intimidating political opponents. Hun Sen, who has held power for three decades since being installed by the Vietnamese in January 1985, has not had a real political rival. Cabinet members talk steadily about presumed democratic reforms, while ignoring a quasi-coup in 1993 and a real one in 1997. They readily admit to corruption in ministries and courts during discussions with donors, but never admit personal involvement, and dwell on petty abuses, never on grand scale corruption or on vast personal fortunes that are being built.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, his family, and close associates control vast amounts of the country’s wealth. The London-based nongovernmental agency Global Witness in its 2016 report “Hostile Takeover" detailed how Hun Sen’s family dominates the most important businesses in Cambodia where they can operate outside the law thanks to the protection of Asia’s longest-serving premier, his relatives, and associates who hold top military and government posts.

Opposition leaders and outside observers, including the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, have criticized the Cambodian judicial system’s lack of independence. Rarely do politicians of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) face charges, but the list of opposition lawmakers dragged before the courts is long and includes Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, as well as other opposition lawmakers like Um Sam An and Meach Sovannara, the CNRP's media director.

Politicians skillful at resisting and diverting the international development community are just as capable of controlling a largely rural population through demagoguery, false promises and intimidation. The raw power of the state, complemented by fear and the distribution of small gifts and favors at critical junctures, continue to provide a veneer of political legitimacy.

The Royal Cambodian Government [RGC] has participated in preparing innumerable plans which reflect state-of-the-art thinking in the international donor community, and are rich in rhetoric on such themes as good governance, transparency, accountability and participation. In most cases, reform plans are little more than a studied attempt to tell international donors what they want to hear. Even cursory examination of the reality behind the rhetoric reveals neither substance nor political will. The RGC continues to use a broad array of tactics to divert reform-minded donors. Despite the fact that donors account for half of the annual budget of the RGC, most reform efforts have had limited impact on a persistent, less-than-scrupulous opponent. The RGC readily agrees to accept donor projects, particularly when they include such benefits as study trips and perhaps funds that can be diverted. But some projects stretch out over a remarkably long time without observable results.

As of 2012 the ruling Cambodian People’s Party had 90 seats in parliament. The Sam Rainsy Party had slowly grown its influence and by 2012 held 26 of 123 National Assembly seats. The Human Rights Party has three seats. Sam Rainsy, the main opposition leader, was in exile and faced more than 10 years of imprisonment over charges related to the destruction of markers near the Vietnamese border in Svay Rieng province. It was said that Sam Rainsy had incited people against the Vietnamese “the cheap way" and would not be able to compete with the ruling party and Hun Sen without more struggle.

On October 23, 1991, the Paris Conference reconvened to sign a comprehensive settlement giving the UN full authority to supervise a cease-fire, repatriate the displaced Khmer along the border with Thailand, disarm and demobilize the factional armies, and prepare the country for free and fair elections. Prince Sihanouk, President of the Supreme National Council of Cambodia (SNC), and other members of the SNC returned to Phnom Penh in November 1991, to begin the resettlement process in Cambodia. The UN Advance Mission for Cambodia (UNAMIC) was deployed at the same time to maintain liaison among the factions and begin demining operations to expedite the repatriation of approximately 370,000 Cambodians from Thailand.

On March 16, 1992, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) arrived in Cambodia to begin implementation of the UN Settlement Plan. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees began full scale repatriation in March 1992. UNTAC grew into a 22,000-strong civilian and military peacekeeping force to conduct free and fair elections for a constituent assembly.

Over 4 million Cambodians (about 90% of eligible voters) participated in the May 1993 elections, although the Khmer Rouge or Party of Democratic Kampuchea (PDK), whose forces were never actually disarmed or demobilized, barred some people from participating. Prince Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC Party was the top vote recipient with a 45.5% vote, followed by Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, respectively. FUNCINPEC then entered into a coalition with the other parties that had participated in the election. The parties represented in the 120-member assembly proceeded to draft and approve a new constitution, which was promulgated September 24, 1993. It established a multiparty liberal democracy in the framework of a constitutional monarchy, with the former Prince Sihanouk elevated to King. Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen became First and Second Prime Ministers, respectively, in the Royal Cambodian Government (RGC). The constitution provides for a wide range of internationally recognized human rights.

In 1997, most of the remaining Khmer Rouge fighters accepted a government amnesty and laid down their arms, putting an end to nearly 3 decades of war. On October 4, 2004, the Cambodian National Assembly ratified an agreement with the United Nations on the establishment of a tribunal to try senior leaders responsible for the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. The tribunal held its first trial, against former S-21 prison chief Kaing Guek Eav (aka Duch), in 2009, resulting in a guilty verdict and a 35 year sentence in July 2010. Duch will serve 19 years after his sentence was reduced by five years for being illegally detained by a Cambodian Military court, and by 11 years for time served since his 1999 arrest. Four more former Khmer Rouge leaders are currently being tried, and two additional investigations are in progress that may result in additional indictmentrs. Donor countries have provided over $100 million to date in support of the tribunal, including $6.8 million from the United States.

While the post-1993 period was relatively stable in comparison to the previous decades, political violence continued to be a problem through the 1990s. After rising tensions between the coalition partners, in 1997 Hun Sen led a successful coup against his rival, whom he accused of collaborating with the Khmer Rouge. Factional fighting between supporters of Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen resulted in more than 100 FUNCINPEC deaths and a few Cambodian People's Party (CPP) casualties. The 1997 coup seriously weakened FUNCINPEC as a party and a military organization. The CPP chased Ranariddh and other FUNCINPEC leaders into exile, executed many FUNCINPEC leaders, imprisoned hundreds more, and Hun Sen took over as sole Prime Minister.

FUNCINPEC leaders returned to Cambodia shortly before the 1998 National Assembly elections held on July 26, 1998. More than 93% of all registered voters participated. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won the majority of votes. However, it failed to win the two-thirds majority needed to form a new government. In those elections, the CPP received 41% of the vote, FUNCINPEC 32%, and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) 13%. Due to political violence, intimidation, and lack of media access, many international observers judged the elections to have been seriously flawed.

Tensions remained high and sporadic political violence occurred throughout a four month deadlock. Then, on November 30, 1998 a coalition government was formed between Hun Sen’s CPP party and Prince Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC party, with CPP the senior partner. Following the formation of the government, the National Assembly and a newly formed Senate began operating; other donors returned to respond to Cambodia’s request for development assistance; and the Royal Government of Cambodia announced its intentions of embarking on a path toward reform.

Cambodia's first commune elections, held in February 2002 to select chiefs and members of 1,621 commune (municipality) councils, also were marred by political violence and fell short of being free and fair by international standards. The CPP further consolidated its power in 2002, when the country held its first local (commune) elections in more than 30 years. As a royalist party, FUNCINPEC has relied on peasants’ loyalty to the king rather than strong grassroots organization, and it was unable to compete effectively with the CPP whose leaders had run local government since overthrowing the Khmer Rouge in 1979. The campaign was fraught with violence and intimidation; 15 opponents of the CPP were assassinated, but none of the CPP’s candidates were killed. The CPP won 68% of all commune council seats, and controls 99% of the councils. FUNCINPEC won only 20% of all seats, while the Sam Rainsy Party won 12%.

National Assembly elections in July 2003 failed to give any one party the two-thirds majority of seats required under the constitution to form a government. A political stalemate ensued which was not resolved until July 2004, when the National Assembly approved a controversial addendum to the constitution in order to require a vote on a new government. The National Assembly then approved a new coalition government comprised of the CPP and FUNCINPEC, with Hun Sen as Prime Minister and Prince Norodom Ranariddh as President of the National Assembly. The SRP, with support from various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), asserted the addendum was unconstitutional and boycotted the vote.

With time, Cambodian politics matured. Hun Sen became a bit more strategic in his thinking about domestic politics, while Norodom Ranarith increasingly factored himself out of the equation by his failure to modernize his political organization, while alienating friends and allies, and attempting to subsist on the fumes of diminishing royal influence. On October 7, 2004, King Sihanouk abdicated the throne due to illness. On October 14, the Cambodian Throne Council selected Prince Norodom Sihamoni to succeed Sihanouk as King. King Norodom Sihamoni officially ascended the throne in a coronation ceremony on October 29, 2004.

In February 2005, the National Assembly voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of three opposition parliamentarians, including SRP leader Sam Rainsy, in connection with lawsuits filed against them by members of the ruling parties. One of the parliamentarians, Cheam Channy, was arrested and later tried, while Sam Rainsy went into self-imposed exile. In October 2005, the government arrested critics of Cambodia's border treaties with Vietnam and later detained four human rights activists following International Human Rights Day in December. In January 2006, the political climate improved with the Prime Minister's decision to release all political detainees and permit Sam Rainsy's return to Cambodia.

In February 2006, prior to the annual meeting of foreign aid donors toCambodia, the Hun Sen government pardoned Sam Rainsy, Chea Poch, and Cheam Channy and the National Assembly restored full parliamentary immunity to them. Defamation and other criminal complaints against seven prominent critics of the government were dropped. Chea Poch and Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia in August 2005 and February 2006, respectively. In February 2006, the National Assembly passed a law allowing a party to form a government and pass bills with a simple rather than two-thirds majority. In March 2006, Prince Ranariddh resigned as President of the National Assembly to protest the change in voting rules and in August 2006, reached out to Sam Rainsy. Following public criticism by Hun Sen, Prince Ranariddh resigned as President of the National Assembly in March 2006. He later broke with FUNCINPEC and founded a new party, the Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP). In 2007, Ranariddh was convicted of corruption by a Cambodian court and fled to Malaysia to avoid imprisonment. In October 2008, he received a royal pardon and returned to Cambodia. Shortly afterward, he announced that he was withdrawing from politics. However, in December 2010 Ranariddh announced plans to re-enter politics, and the Nationalist Party reverted to its former name, the Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP), with Ranariddh as its leader.

Cambodia's second commune elections were held in April 2007, followed by National Assembly elections in July 2008. In both cases, there was little of the pre-election violence that preceded the 2002 and 2003 elections. Both polls resulted in victories for the Cambodian People's Party, with the Sam Rainsy Party emerging as the main opposition party and the royalist parties showing weakening support. The Assembly inaugurated in September 2008 is led by a coalition of the CPP (90 seats) and FUNCINPEC (2 seats). The SRP (26 seats) and the Human Rights Party led by Kem Sokha (3 seats) are in opposition. The NRP (2 seats) has announced its intention to merge with FUNCINPEC by 2012. The CPP-led coalition retained Hun Sen as Prime Minister, as well as most of the key leaders from the previous government, and all ministers are from the CPP. In May 2009, non-universal elections were held when commune council members chose representatives to district councils, city councils, and provincial councils, which would have administrative and budgetary powers at the local level.

In 2009, the CPP-dominated parliament voted again to lift the parliamentary immunity of three members of the opposition, including Sam Rainsy, in order to allow civil or criminal charges to be pursued. Sam Rainsy was convicted in absentia and sentenced to ten years prison in January 2010 for his role in the removal of several temporary border markers on the Cambodia-Vietnam border, along with making statements deemed racially incendiary. He remained outside the country. A second SRP member was convicted of defaming the Prime Minister; after refusing to pay the court-ordered fine and exhausting all appeals, the court ordered the lawmaker’s salary garnished to pay the fine, a process which concluded in December 2010. The member began advocating for restoration of parliamentary immunity in January 2011. A third SRP member was ultimately acquitted on all charges.

Cambodia’s National Election Committee formally reaffirmed that exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy was ineligible to run for office or vote in the country's upcoming elections. NEC Secretary-General Tep Nitha told reporters 04 January 2013 that the new opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party would be allowed to contest the parliamentary elections. But he said Rainsy would not be eligible because his name has been deleted from the national voter registry. “Political compromise is different from technicality of voter registration, because we are under a different law," said Tep. "Political compromise is only for political issues." Rainsy faced a prison sentence if he returned to Cambodia, and the law does not allow persons convicted of a crime to participate in elections. He and his supporters have said the charges against him are politically motivated. The announcement was a setback to the opposition, which had hoped the political activist would be allowed to return to lead a coalition against the ruling party.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 28 July 2013. Hun Sen predicted in April 2013 that his party would win at least a two-thirds majority in the upcoming polls in which the main opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, is barred from standing because of a string of convictions against him which he says were politically motivated. A total of 14 children of senior Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) members are registered to run in the July 28 election. The Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel) warned in its annual report in March 2013 that Cambodia’s democracy was “increasingly fragile" and that the electoral process was excluding opposition and dissenting voices ahead of the election.

Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) had 90 seats in 123-seat National Assembly. The Sam Rainsy Party [SRP] has 26 seats and the Human Rights Party [HRP] just three. The SRP and HRP members joined the new Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) led by exiled opposition chief Sam Rainsy, who has been barred from standing in the elections because of a string of convictions against him which he says were politically motivated.

In early June 2013 a key committee of the National Assembly, the country's lower house of parliament, controlled by Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) approved a measure to dismiss the 29 opposition members from the legislature because their parties have merged into a new group. The parliament’s permanent committee, members of whom are all from the CPP, made the decision at a secret meeting in an alleged attempt by Hun Sen to cripple the opposition ahead of the July 28 elections. The parliamentary panel had ruled that 26 opposition legislators from the former Sam Rainsy Party and three from the former Human Rights Party were no longer MPs because they had quit their old parties under which they contested their seats.

Tens of thousands of supporters thronged the streets of Cambodia’s capital June 27, 2013 to officially kick off campaigns for political parties contesting next month’s national elections, as the exiled leader of the country’s main opposition group said he would not return for the polls. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) and at least five opposition parties, including exiled leader Sam Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), held separate rallies in Phnom Penh in preparation of the 28 July 2013 vote. The poll was the fifth national election since the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords ended decades of civil war in Cambodia, including the 1975-79 rule of the notorious Khmer Rouge, which killed millions of the country’s citizens. The CPP, presided over by Hun Sen, is widely expected to win the vote.

The Cambodian government announced July 12, 2013 that opposition leader in exile Sam Rainsy had been pardoned and was free to return to the country ahead of the general election scheduled for July 28. Government spokesman Phay Siphan said Prime Minister Hun Sen had sent a request for a royal pardon to Cambodia’s king. The assent of the king, a constitutional monarch, is a formality. The spokesman said the pardon is to promote national reconciliation. Sam Rainsy’s return thrilled supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the coalition of key opposition parties formed to contest the election. The group remained the only serious challenger to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party. It also came as a relief to those among Cambodia’s foreign donors who had been involved in brokering a solution.

Sam Rainsy returned from nearly four years in self-exile on 19 July 2013, but election officials said he was not eligible to run for office, despite the pardon. Sam Rainsy is ineligible to run for office in the July 28 elections because the registration of candidates has long been closed and his name has been removed from the electoral register, according to the National Election Committee (NEC), the body that manages the country's elections. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, had suggested that Hun Sen pave the way for Sam Rainsy to run in the elections. The opposition said it continued to face political intimidation in the run-up to the election.

Rainsy campaigned freely in the run-up to the vote and drew large crowds of supporters, suggesting his return had given a boost to the opposition. Cambodia's electoral system faced major problems, including issues over voter registration lists, the use of civil servants and army personnel to campaign for Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), government control of mass media to slant the news, and intimidation against opposition figures and civil society monitors.

The Cambodian government claimed victory July 28, 2013 in the national election, indicating that longtime leader Hun Sen would extend his 28-year rule despite a strong challenge from a rejuvenated opposition. A government spokesman said Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party [CPP] won 68 seats in the nation's 123-seat parliament. That figure represented a significant decline from the 90 seat majority previously held by the party. There was no immediate confirmation from the National Election Committee, which was expected to release official results in the coming days.

Human Rights Watch said 13 January 2015 the leader of Cambodia, Hun Sen, had "repeatedly used political violence, repression, and corruption to remain in power," as the leader neared his 30th anniversary in power. Hun Sen's anniversary made him the sixth longest-serving political leader in the world, a tenure the group said was achieved through violence and fear. In a report released Tuesday, the group's Asia director Brad Adams said Cambodia urgently needs reforms so its people can exercise their basic human rights without fear of arrest, torture, or execution.

The killing of independent analyst Kem Ley 10 July 2016 and a broad crackdown on dissent in Cambodia hardened attitudes against Prime Minister Hun Sen among the Khmer diaspora living in Australia and the United States. Kem Ley, a popular commentator and grassroots campaigner, was gunned down as he drank coffee at a mart just before 9am. Kem Ley was critical of both the government and opposition parties, advocating for a new era of clean politics. But the bulk of his criticism was aimed at Hun Sen's ruling party.

However, prominent members of the communities warn disillusionment with the long-ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) would not automatically result in further support for opposition leader Sam Rainsy, currently living in self-imposed exile in France. In Australia, the Khmer expatriate community dropped his support for Sam Rainsy, head of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). The opposition leader's performance, after losing four consecutive elections, and a lack of consultation with the diaspora in Australia had cost him.

Prime minister Hun Sen, a former army commander who defected from the Khmer Rouge, held power alongside a small but powerful group of political allies who have become enormously wealthy. Hun Sen's family amassed a multimillion-dollar business empire spanning the country's most lucrative sectors during his rule.

Defense minister, Tea Banh, warned on 14 May 2017 that the army will “smash the teeth" of anyone protesting a win by the ruling party in the June 4 elections. “If you lose the elections and contest the results by taking to the streets to protest, we will smash your teeth," the defense minister said. “I’m warning you in strong terms that we won’t allow such protests again."

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on 24 May 2017 repeated his warning that opposition victories in local elections and parliamentary polls in 2018 would bring war to the country, saying his ruling Cambodian People's Party could lose patience and "burn down your homes." Hun Sen, who had ruled the Southeast Asian country since 1985, used a three-hour speech to some 4,000 Christians in Phnom Penh, to drive home a threat that he has made several times in the run up to the June 4 commune elections.

The main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party - CNRP — one of 12 political parties competing for 1,646 commune council seats—could give the CPP a run for its money in the June polls, foreshadowing a possible CNRP win in national elections scheduled for 2018.

Unofficial results showed the CPP won 22 provinces while the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won two major cities, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, as well as in Kompong Cham province. With more than 85 percent of the Southeast Asian country's 7.86 million registered voters casting ballots in rural commune and urban sangkat council elections, the CPP secured 1163 commune/sangkat chief posts, the CNRP won 482; and one commune leader post went to the Khmer National United Party.

For the commune councilor seats, the CPP received 5,347, the CNRP got 4,518, the royalist Funcinpec Party earned 28, the Khmer National United Party got 23, the Grassroots Democracy Party gained five, the League for Democracy Party earned four, and the Beehive Social Democracy Party got one. The CPP received 3,540,056 votes, or 50.76 percent of the total votes, and the CNRP got 3,056,824 votes, or 43.83 percent.

The 14-day campaign period that began on 20 May 2017 was relatively calm, but took place against the backdrop of frequent warnings from Hun Sen, who had ruled for nearly 32 years, that opposition victories in parliamentary polls in 2018 will bring chaos, instability and war to Cambodia.

Cambodia is expected to hold a general election in 2018.

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