PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – All signs point to a continued crackdown on dissent by the Cambodian People’s Party, experts say, after another week featuring an arrest of an opposition member, as well as the announcement by the Ministry of Interior of a potential new cyber bill that could regulate speech online.
On September 5, Cambodia National Rescue Party organizer Chea Tang Sorn was arrested after distributing leaflets warning of Vietnamese plans to undermine Cambodia. He has since been released. His incarceration is one of a steady stream of arrests targeting opposition members this summer, made under the pretense of protecting national security.
“It looks like the honeymoon period with the opposition party is over,” said Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of South Wales’ Australia Defense Force Academy. “[Hun Sen] has to keep them on a leash and restrained in their activities, and he has to map out a game plan for retaining power.” While the pace of the current crackdown is alarming, experts say that this is not new territory for Hun Sen. Markus Karbaum, a consultant and analyst of Cambodian politics, said that these crackdowns occur on a cyclical basis.
“Since 2005, there have been numerous efforts in silencing opposition politicians as well as unionists and human rights defenders,” he wrote by email. “Phases of crackdowns are normally followed by politically negotiated solutions.”
Still, the current targeting of political dissent is unusual in that it has the backdrop of the “Culture of Dialogue,” an agreement between the prime minister and opposition leader Sam Rainsy that was formalized last summer. Mr. Karbaum said that Mr. Hun Sen’s current aggression towards the CNRP marks the “de facto” end of the agreement, although it still exists formally.
Equally alarming to civil society groups and proponents of free speech are the prevalence of new laws with the potential to rein in dissent. The Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, which passed in July, sparked an outcry among both the opposition and civil society groups. It requires all NGOs to register with the government and to get prior approval for their activities.
On Monday, the Interior Ministry unveiled plans for a new “anti-cybercrime” department. The unit will crack down on criminal activity like hacking and online scams but critics say that it also has the potential to monitor and punish controversial speech. Even without the cyber unit on patrol, Facebook users have been targeted for arrest three times this month in high profile cases, with one case featuring a university student who had called for revolution. A lesser-discussed ban on political organizing, including among student groups, at schools and universities, also went into effect this summer. While not as rigid as their neighbors in Southeast Asia, analysts say that the Cambodian government is mimicking some of the tactics used throughout the region.
“Singapore, Thailand, and Cambodia all practice their political ‘minecraft’ in their own way, but there’s definitely some learning going on from the neighbors,” said Sophal Ear, author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy”.
“Happy families are all alike, and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Mr. Ear said. In Singapore, recently deceased President Lee Kuan Yew used anti-defamation laws to cripple political critics; in Thailand, strict lese majesté laws have prevented any criticism of the monarchy for over a century; and in Malaysia, colonial-era anti-sedition laws have just been expanded. In this context, Cambodia seems lenient by comparison, but with the CPP increasingly threatened by support for the CNRP, experts worry that a further clampdown is likely.
“To turn Kennedy’s phrase on its head, the ruling elite shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of its continued rule,” Mr. Ear said.
After barely defeating the CNRP in the 2013 election, experts say the CPP is deftly placating the opposition through agreements like the “Culture of Dialogue”, the establishment of an anti-corruption unit and by allowing electoral reform. Still, they say the CPP is keeping close watch on any threats to its power.
“Too much rope to the opposition is undermining their position,” Mr. Thayer said. “Hun Sen is a leopard; you can’t change his spots.”