The Cambodian government is making up new bureaucratic obstacles to try to prevent the risk of any real opposition party being able to contest national elections on July 23, 2023.
Between 2012 and 2017, a united democratic opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), posed a significant threat to the dictatorial regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The CNRP scored 44% of the vote in both of the two elections in which it took part, at national level in 2013 and locally in 2017. This was despite systematic electoral irregularities, and the administration of the elections by a National Election Committee (NEC) which was, and remains, under government control.
The CNRP was dissolved by order of Cambodia’s politically controlled supreme court in November 2017. This led to the electoral farce of 2018 when there was no real opposition party and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won every single seat in the national assembly. Dissolving the CNRP was not enough for Hun Sen: Kem Sokha, the leader of the CNRP when it was banned, is now cut off from the outside world under house detention in Phnom Penh, sentenced to 27 years on a bogus charge of treason for which no credible evidence was ever produced. While Kem Sokha is prevented from leaving the country, I, in my capacity as acting leader of the CNRP, am banned from setting foot in Cambodia after being sentenced to life in prison and getting personal physical threats from Hun Sen.
The dissolution of the CNRP was effectively a constitutional coup which returned Cambodia to the status of a one-party state. The step marked Hun Sen’s boldest departure from the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements on Cambodia signed by the world’s major powers, which lay down a system of regular democratic or “authentic” elections for the country. Hun Sen took a limited step back in June 2022 when he allowed the Candlelight Party to participate in local elections. Despite the systematic intimidation of its candidates and supporters, and vote counting which was simply carried out by the ruling party behind closed doors, Candlelight was still able to achieve a score of 22%.
Expectations that Candlelight would do better than this in a national election have been enough to prompt the government to seek any bureaucratic pretext to prevent it from registering. The deadline for parties to register is May 8, but Candlelight has still not been able to achieve this.
In previous elections, the NEC has required a photocopy of the ministry of interior letter which serves as the registration document of a political party. In the case of the Candlelight Party, this document is a ministry letter of March 23, 1998, which recognized the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), created by myself, as a legal entity. The SRP was a founding partner of the CNRP when it combined its resources with those of Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party in 2012. But after the launch of the CNRP, the SRP remains a legal and distinct entity after changing its name to Candlelight. The candle was the logo of the SRP whose motto (“Integrity, Truth, Justice”) the Candlelight Party has also preserved. The population continues to connect the Candlelight Party with the SRP and with myself.
This original 1998 letter was lost and is presumed to have been destroyed when the government seized the headquarters of the CNRP on Nov. 16, 2017. The Candlelight Party, which is the same legal entity as the old SRP, has sought access to the headquarters and to recover documents, but this has been denied.
For the July 2023 national election, the NEC is demanding a certified or notarized copy of the ministry letter, which is impossible to obtain without the original. Attempts to find a way to meet the new requirement have met with bureaucratic stonewalling. The Candlelight Party was allowed to contest the communal elections of June 2022 with the same documentation which it has now.
The new bureaucratic barrier comes at a time when the familiar old pattern of opposition supporters being assaulted by faceless motorbike gangs wearing helmets has resurfaced. Human Rights Watch interviewed four of the victims of such attacks carried out in April and May and found multiple similarities. All the attacks were carried out by two men in dark clothes with dark motorcycle helmets riding a single motorbike, and using either batons or blades.
The driver in each case stayed on the bike while the passenger assaulted the victim. No money or valuables were stolen in any of the incidents, and all of the victims said they believed they were assaulted due to their Candlelight activity. There can be no doubt that the government is the real controlling face behind these attacks.
Hun Sen’s plan is to permanently perpetuate dictatorship in Cambodia by handing over power to his son Hun Manet. As it stands, international election observers will be able to find better uses of their time than going to Cambodia in July. Democratic governments must deny legitimacy to the regime which claims legitimacy from such a brutal charade.
Democracy in Cambodia will only be achieved by a reform of the NEC to make it fit for the purpose of neutrally administering the voting process. For now, it is clear that the government is using Kafkaesque administrative tricks to stop the Candlelight Party from participating in the July national election, just as it did with the CNRP in 2018.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Sam Rainsy, Cambodia’s finance minister from 1993 to 1994, is the co-founder and acting leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).