With political and media freedoms being curtailed ahead of a general election scheduled for July, the UN’s human rights envoy in Cambodia criticised Prime Minister Hun Sen for prioritising stability over human rights.
Professor Rhona Smith praised Cambodia’s economic and social progress, but said “it is also necessary to respect civil and political rights”.
The UN rapporteur met National Assembly president Heng Samrin and Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng.
Veteran Prime Minister Hun Sen has been crushing his opponents, shutting down independent media groups and has used the courts to dissolve the principal opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
He has repeatedly used maintaining peace and stability as a justification for crushing democracy.
A former Khmer Rouge (pictured) cadre, Hun Sen, 65, fled Cambodia in 1977 and returned with the Vietnamese military during that country’s war against the savage regime in 1979. He was first appointed foreign minister and was named prime minister in the Vietnamese-supported government in 1985.
“Restricting Cambodians’ voices could ultimately threaten the very stability that the government and the people have worked hard to build,” the UN rapporteur said. “Freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly should be protected and developed, not restricted, in a multi-party liberal democracy.”
Hun Sen’s grip seemed shaken in 2013’s general election, when the CNRP won 55 seats in the National Assembly to the prime minister’s 68.
In September last year, Kem Sokha, then CNRP leader, was arrested and charged with treason, which he denied. In November, the CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court and 118 of its senior members were banned from political office for five years. Many of its members fled the country.
Smith said using the politicised courts to close down the opposition was “rule by law” rather than by the “rule of law”.
In 2016, four Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association staff and a member of the National Election Committee were held for 14 months without trial before being released on bail last June.
Two reporters formerly of Radio Free Asia were charged with espionage and imprisoned and two former Cambodia Daily journalists were held on incitement charges.
Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People Party, rejected Smith’s report.
“I think the assessment from Rhona Smith is not linked to the reality of Cambodian society,” Eysan told the media. “If Cambodia has human rights violations, or democracy has become narrowed down as she said, we will not be able to maintain peace, political stability and the remarkable progress in the country.
“Cambodia is already in sustainable peace and there is no chaos like other countries,” he added.
“There are no bomb blasts like in the Middle East or any shootings like in the United States. So it means that the situation in Cambodia is good. Why did she say it is not good? What she said is opposite of the truth.”
Cambodia’s bloody history is used to justify Hun Sen’s grip on power. Picture credit: YouTube