Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers an address during an opening ceremony for the Khmer New Year at Bayon temple at the Angkor complex in Siem Reap province on April 13, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

This weekend, Hun Sen will go to the polls seeking to extend his reign as the world’s longest-serving prime minister. Over the course of his 33 years in power in Cambodia, Hun Sen has triumphed in the four elections since the 1993 UN-run polls. However, not once in that time has he approached a ballot from a position that is at once so strong and so weak.

On the one hand, this Sunday’s vote is already a foregone conclusion. Faced with a fractured and disorganized opposition, Hun Sen will remain in government, in all likelihood with a healthy majority. A ringing endorsement of his stewardship of the country?

Well, not quite.

This apparent position of strength is illusory. Threatened by gains made by political opponents and growing dissent among civil society, Hun Sen’s government has entrenched itself only by virtue of a nationwide crackdown on freedoms and human rights that has seen few of its critics spared.

The groundwork laid over recent years in preparation for the election has all but ensured there will be no repeat of what we saw in Malaysia in May. There, a similarly long-standing leader had a seemingly unassailable position heading into election day. Now, rather than running a country, Najib Razik finds himself facing criminal charges.

The approach taken by Cambodian government under the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has left no such fate to chance. Starting with the enfeeblement of their main political opponents, it has embarked on a mission to silence dissent that has also seen the country’s independent media and civil society come under sustained attack.

Having emerged from decades of brutality under the Khmer Rouge regime and widespread political violence in the 1990s, Cambodia’s progress on human rights is being dismantled bit by bit

Having emerged from decades of brutality under the Khmer Rouge regime and widespread political violence in the 1990s, Cambodia’s progress on human rights is being dismantled bit by bit.

The current crackdown can trace its roots back to the last national elections in July 2013. Chastened by the near-victory of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the CPP has been determined never to allow such a close shave again.

What should have been the CNRP’s finest moment has proved to be its undoing. First, its charismatic leader Sam Rainsy was forced into exile on the basis of trumped-up and discredited defamation charges in November 2015. Now residing in Paris, he faces years in prison should he return to Cambodia, and only last month received yet another court summons – this time for baseless allegations of “royal defamation.”

The past year has seen a further doubling-down on opposition politicians who could threaten the CPP’s hold on power. Rainsy’s successor, Kem Sokha, was arrested on ludicrous accusations of “treason” in September 2017. Just a month later, his deputy, Mu Sochua, fled the country to avoid a similar fate. Dozens of other leading opposition figures have been arrested since 2015, many of whom remain behind bars.

The final blow to the CNRP came last November, when a decision by the Supreme Court – whose chief judge is also a member of the CPP’s powerful 34-person Permanent Committee – dissolved the party and banned 118 of its members from any political activity for five years. More than half of the opposition’s key figures subsequently fled Cambodia.

The ruling, a sorry reminder of the judiciary’s increasingly compromised role as an extended arm of the executive,  was a blatant act of political repression and a serious violation of the human rights to freedom of association and expression.

Barred from competing in the election, the CNRP called for a boycott of Sunday’s election. In response, the government is investigating anyone repeating the call on social media, threatening fines and re-education, followed by criminal charges. Hun Sen has even claimed in speeches that the government can triangulate people’s locations when they post calls to boycott on Facebook.

Not content with neutralizing its political enemies, the government has also started to hollow out Cambodia’s independent media. Last September, the English-language Cambodia Daily was abruptly forced to close over an arbitrarily imposed US$6.3 million tax bill it was given just 30 days to pay.

Then in May this year, the Phnom Penh Post was sold to Malaysian investor Sivakumar G, whose public relations firm has links to Hun Sen, after it too was suddenly hit with a $3.9 million tax “fine” it could not pay. A CPP official, Ly Tayseng, who was initially presented as the investor’s lawyer, then took over ownership of the newspaper without explanation two months later.

With the country’s television stations all owned by CPP officials or their allies, the one area independent of Khmer-language broadcast media that had remained available to Cambodians was also shut down last year. Thirty-two radio stations that had broadcast nightly hour-long local news programs from Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and Voice of Democracy suddenly had their licenses rescinded.

Two RFA journalists who the government alleged had continued to report were subsequently arrested and jailed on accusations of “espionage.” Come election day, they will have been in prison for 258 days without trial.

Cambodia’s once-vibrant civil society is also facing unprecedented pressure. Repressive legislation that gives authorities sweeping power to control the NGO sector has allowed the government to shut down the US-funded National Democratic Institute, with other civil-society groups also under threat. Individual activists routinely face harassment and jail time for their work.

The net result of all this oppression is fear. Seeing what has happened to others, most of Cambodia’s journalists, politicians and activists have been cowed into silence – too afraid to report, to oppose, to speak out.

Hun Sen will be returned to power on Sunday, but beyond that, the future is less certain. How much longer will Cambodians – two-thirds of whom are under the age of 30 – tolerate a government that chooses to continue has trampling on their rights to freedom of expression, association and justice in order to prolong its iron grip on power?

Clare Algar

Clare Algar joined Amnesty International as director of global operations in 2018. Previously, she was a corporate litigator for 10 years before becoming executive director of human-rights NGO Reprieve. Reprieve worked to end the death penalty and abuses related to the war on terror.