In early February, the Cambodian government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, shut down the independent news organisation Voice of Democracy (VOD).
This decision came soon after a VOD report on 9 February that Hun Sen’s eldest son, Lieutenant General Hun Manet, had allegedly approved financial aid to Turkey. Cambodia is scheduled to have its general election in July 2023.
The shutdown of the VOD suggests a familiar and organised repressive strategy by Hun Sen to silence critical voices months before a national election. On 16 November 2017 just months before the previous general election, the then leading opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved by the Supreme Court.
Hun Sen has served as the country’s Prime Minister since 1985, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. During his tenure, repression of the voice of democracy and human rights has grown, especially the disbandment of the CNRP in 2017.
The CNRP had received 44% of the votes in the 2013 general election and achieved the same score in commune council elections in June 2017. Clearly, it had sizeable voter support.
The party’s disbandment led to dozens of opposition figures and activists being jailed or forced into exile. Since then, international NGOs, independent websites and newspapers have also been shut down.
Today, concerned observers are looking at Asean’s response – or rather the lack of it. Apart from the Myanmar issue, the Cambodia democracy crisis has not received enough attention within the region and beyond.
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Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand and the Philippines, are also grappling with rapid democratic erosion.
For many, Anwar Ibrahim’s victory in Malaysia’s general election last year has given hope to the region for the revival of democracy not just within the country but also across the region.
Asean’s diplomatic effort to resolve the turmoil in Myanmar has not been fruitful. Little progress has been made on the regional grouping’s “five-point consensus” peace plan, which the Myanmar had agreed to in April 2021.
Many civil society groups do not see the five-point consensus as a sincere plan nor do they think it is feasible.
In a recent speech in Thailand, which Anwar was visiting as part of his first regional tour, he spoke out against the “atrocities” committed by Myanmar’s junta following its 2021 coup and Asean’s response to the political and humanitarian crisis.
“We should carve Myanmar out for now, and I don’t think the Myanmar issue should frustrate our moves,” Anwar said. “It would be ideal if we could have a strong consensus in giving a strong message to the Myanmar regime.”
The World Justice Project 2022 ranks Cambodia in second last place out of 140 countries – something Cambodia disputes.
Anwar is scheduled to visit Cambodia and attend a Ramadan Iftar (breaking of fast) dinner with Cambodian Muslims on 27 March, Hun Sen recently announced.
Will Anwar raise the importance of upholding democracy? Let’s see if the Malaysian PM, famously labelled as a “democracy icon”, will make a similar statement on the state of Cambodia’s democracy, as he did in Thailand about Myanmar’s.
This should be the time for Anwar to put his words – his public commitment to liberal democracy – into action at the Asean level.
Khoo Ying Hooi
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
28 February 2023
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