PHNOM PENH – Cambodia faces an election year with its principal opposition leader in jail on Tuesday and the government set to ramp up measures to silence dissent despite calls for free and fair elections.
The dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (PRNC) by the Supreme Court in November, which followed the imprisonment in September of the party’s leader, Kem Sokha, was the culmination of a government-led campaign to quash the opposition after the ruling People’s Party of Cambodia posted disappointing results in local elections held in June.
“Leave an opportunity for people to choose leadership representatives through an election that is free and fair,” Kem Sokha said to the government in a letter read out by his daughter on his Facebook page.
The Supreme Court ruling also saw 100 opposition figures banned from public office.
Sokha is charged with plotting to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government allegedly with the help of United States interests.
He denies all charges, claiming they are politically motivated.
The letter, which was read out Monday, also warned that Cambodia would face the prospect of losing international aid and increased condemnation from the global community over the government’s crackdown on political parties, human rights groups and media outlets.
“Senior officials cannot be involved in political activities, so they have been completely silenced,” PRNC PR chief and Sokha’s daughter, Monovithya Kem, told EFE in an email sent from the US.
Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, two former journalists with Radio Free Asia, a US-funded station, were also imprisoned in November accused of espionage for “providing information to a foreign state.”
Their arrests came two months after Voice of America and a range of local radio stations, as well as the local Cambodia Daily newspaper, were forced to close over supposed unpaid taxes.
Several NGOs, including the National Democracy Institute (NDI) and Mother Nature, were also banned from operating in the country.
NDI director, John S. Cavanaugh, told EFE that the PPC’s crackdown on dissidents demonstrates the authorities’ fear of relinquishing power after the party’s poor results in June’s local elections.
“Hun Sen was not going to allow it,” Cavanaugh said, accusing the government of using the judiciary to remove opposition elements.
The United States and the European Union have criticized Hun Sen’s campaign and announced the withdrawal of funding to Cambodia’s election commission charged with overseeing the national elections slated for July 2018.
Hun Sen has met the condemnation with typical defiance, hailing his country’s “stability” and repeating the party line that peace is crucial for the Southeast Asian nation’s development.
Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, won the country’s first democratic elections in 1993 after more than two decades of conflict, which included the reign of the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) during which about 1.7 million people died.