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The Government of Cambodia under Prime Minister Hun Sen conducted a midnight raid on Sunday, September 3. Kem Sokha, the leader of the opposition party CNRP, was arrested and taken into police custody. He was accused of treason, what the government said was a US-backed plot to destabilize the country’s leadership. This is just one of the many examples of the crackdown on dissent carried out by Hun Sen, ahead of the general election next year.
Democracy in Cambodia had been making quite a progress since the coup in July 1997. Decentralization reform over the past two decades had strengthened political accountability. Khmers were able to hold local leaders accountable through local elections. The economy has performed very well; it’s been growing at a 7% rate annually since 1993. And inequality has dropped perceptibly, according to the World Bank. After thirty plus years of trying to dig themselves out of the abyss, Khmers could finally see a good future without chaos ahead.
The general election of 2013 changed Cambodia’s political landscape. Competition among political parties improved. And with the consolidation among the opposition parties, the CPP, the current ruling party, faced losing popularity. That election gave the CNRP 55 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly. The CPP lost 22 seats, their largest lost to date. And the CNRP also made an unprecedented gain in communal elections in June of this year. The CPP still controls the majority of local governments, but the CNRP’s share of local governments has increased more than 12 fold compared to the last local elections five years ago.
Local and international media and NGOs had been able to operate with little restriction from the government before the 2013 election. Since then, the government has made drastic moves to restrain political participation and free speech throughout the country. In recent weeks, government agencies have started cracking down on NGOs and independent media outlets, including the Cambodia Daily, with the latter being asked to pay a purported $6.3 million in back taxes and penalties or cease operations. The Daily, an English-language newspaper owned by an American family, ceased its publication Monday, September 4. Also, 15 radio stations have been ordered to stop broadcasting for supposedly not adhering to clauses in their contracts, requiring them to inform the Ministry of Information about who they sell their airtime to. This has disproportionately affected independent radio broadcasters Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and Voice of Democracy, and the opposition party CNRP. According to the Phnom Penh Post, “The media crackdown coincided with the shuttering of the US-funded pro-democracy NGO National Democratic Institute (NDI), which was ordered to close down by the Foreign Ministry for not being properly registered. Its foreign staff were given a week to leave the country.”