Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has shown that he has no intention of allowing the national elections scheduled for July 2023 to be free and fair by smashing the country’s last remaining avenues for freedom of information.
The Voice of Democracy (VOD), which published in Khmer and English, on Feb. 13 saw its media license arbitrarily revoked by Hun Sen for simply reporting the words of a government spokesman. An article by VOD stated that Hun Sen’s son Hun Manet had signed an authorization for aid to earthquake-stricken Turkey in his father’s absence.
VOD is run by an NGO, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), which has funding from Western embassies, and press freedom groups including Reporters Without Borders and Transparency International. Hun Sen has told them to simply take back their money. The method of the closure shows what passes for governance in Cambodia. There was no semblance of due process or independent review of the article in question. A public demand for an apology by Hun Sen was followed by an announcement on his Facebook page that the license was being withdrawn.
The report by VOD was published on Feb. 9 and police were at the offices on Feb. 13 to serve the order revoking the license.
The closure of one of Cambodia’s last independent press outlets means that substantially all of the country’s media across all formats is controlled by the government. The closure occurs in the context of ongoing wrongful imprisonment of opposition supporters and routine intimidation of those who continue to operate. The peaceful opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) remains banned.
Rights to freedom of information and expression form part of The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Cambodia is a signatory. The country’s constitution states that “citizens shall have freedom of expression of their ideas, freedom of information, freedom of publication and freedom of assembly.” It also stipulates that the country will have free and fair elections. All of those freedoms are being denied.
No-one believes that the innocuous article about Hun Manet is anything other than a pretext for the closure. Cambodian Internet service providers have already blocked access to previous stories published by VOD, which include coverage of cyber-slavery which flourishes with official complicity in Cambodia. VOD’s reports played an essential part in highlighting the dangers of accepting high paid work from unverified employers in Cambodia.
An estimated 100,000 people from countries in southeast Asia and beyond have been trapped as cyber slaves in Cambodia. These victims are abducted, held in compounds and forced to trick people into parting with their money online. Failure to hit profit targets, or attempts to escape, are met with savage beatings, with local police often turning a blind eye. Those trapped are often young, well educated people from outside Cambodia.
More people will likely fall victim in the future with on the ground reporting about the dangers no longer possible. Governments across Asia must educate their citizens about the dangers of working in Cambodia, because the Cambodian government won’t play its part in doing so.
Internet Prices Jacked Up
The attack on VOD is also part of a wider strategy designed to create an information vacuum in Cambodia. From the beginning of March, the price for 3G, 4G and 5G will be increased by 100 times from the current rate. Currently, data users can pay $1 per week for unlimited Internet usage. This will drastically limit access to online sources of information such as Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and my Facebook page which has 5 million followers.
These decisions show Hun Sen’s contempt for the right of Cambodians to deliberate and decide on their own future. They also show contempt for the sections of the international community who have hoped that gradual progress towards pluralism in Cambodia is somehow possible. The decisions are a slap in the face for leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron who in December welcomed Hun Sen in Paris with open arms.
The international community has ignored worsening political repression in Cambodia for too long. Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia by fear since 1985.The previous national elections of 2018 were a farce in which no meaningful opposition was allowed, with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) winning every single seat in the national assembly.
Hun Sen in his idle moments has said that he would like to become a teacher of journalism. There are few people in the world who are less qualified. His aim is to turn Cambodia into a North Korea-style hermit kingdom where citizens have no choice but to passively accept the narrative of its rulers.
The current government and any future government resulting from sham elections should have no more legitimacy in the eyes of the international community than that of North Korea. Sanctions targeting Hun Sen and his henchmen to prevent them travelling to countries of the free world and to freeze their financial assets outside Cambodia must be urgently imposed.
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).