Cambodia’s highest court approved the dissolution of the country’s main opposition party Thursday, capping a monthslong campaign by Prime Minister Hun Sen to quash dissent ahead of next year’s general election.
The move against the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) effectively makes Cambodia a one-party nation. It follows the September arrest of the party’s president, Kem Sokha – who has been charged with treason – and a crackdown on independent media and pro-Democracy groups, including human-rights groups.
The ruling party had accused the CNRP of involvement in a plot to topple the government, citing a speech Sokha gave in Melbourne four years ago in which he described an effort to win control through the ballot box. The opposition has denied the charges, which have sent ripples of fear through the party and prompted more than half its lawmakers to flee the country.
Cambodia has been a global test case for post-civil war democratization, with billions invested since the United Nations intervened in the early ’90s to end the Khmer Rouge era. Hun Sen has skillfully played off the global community, however, and moved closer to China and Russia as U.S. power — both soft and hard — has diminished in Asia. Hun Sen has likened his media crackdown to U.S. President Donald Trump’s attack on “fake news” and is an admirer of China’s Xi Jinping and Thailand’s military rulers.
Before Thursday’s ruling, CNRP leader Son Chhay told The Associated Press the dissolution was expected as the CNRP had “no hope that the Supreme Court’s verdict will be different to what Prime Minister Hun Sen wants.”
That fear was reinforced by a Phnom Penh Post report on Wednesday that the Supreme Court case would be judged by a panel led its president, Dith Munty, a longtime advisor to Hun Sen and a member of the ruling Cambodia People’s Party’s powerful permanent committee.
Western governments and human rights’ groups have decried the government’s steps to dismantle Cambodia’s nascent democracy since the June local elections gave the CNRP a big boost in representation at the commune level, which they sought to leverage for further gains next July.
U.S. Sentator Ted Cruz recently urged the government to free Sokha, warning he would otherwise work to “ban responsible officials from traveling to the US.” The European Union previously urged the government to reconsider the move to dissolve the opposition.
In a photo from the ASEAN summit in Manila, however, Trump can be seen grasping Hun Sen’s hand while giving a big “thumbs up” sign. In a speech at the meeting on Monday, Hun Sen praised Trump’s policy of non-interference in other countries affairs.
An international human rights group, Human Rights Watch, has encouraged Cambodia’s international donors and supporters to “state clearly” that the dissolution of the CNRP would detract from the legitimacy of next July’s elections.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen seems afraid that he will lose elections scheduled for 2018, so he is using the nuclear option to destroy the opposition,” Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, said in a statement entitled Cambodia: Democracy Faces Death.
It doesn’t appear that Hun Sen, leader of the Southeast Asian nation for 33 years, is bothered by the international outcry. Less than a week ago, he told an audience the 2018 election doesn’t require an international stamp of approval. “We don’t need it,” he said. “There will be no need for anybody to recognize it or not.”
Hun Sen has long ruled Cambodia with an iron fist. In advance of the local elections, both he and defense minister Tea Banh railed against potential CPP losses, with the prime minister warning that the ruling party must win the election to avoid plunging the country into war.
The prime minister said he was willing to “eliminate 100 or 200 people” to prevent his overthrow, while Banh threatened to “smash the teeth” of political opponents, a phrase that harkened back to the Khmer Rouge days.
While the country of 15 million has, in many ways, moved beyond the genocide that historians estimate killed more than 2 million people through execution, disease and starvation in the late 1970s, many of the nation’s leaders, including Hun Sen, are still the same and they can easily stoke old fears.
The U.S. Embassy in Cambodia issued a security alert in advance of Thursday’s ruling, warning its citizens to avoid crowds, protests and demonstrations that might turn violent. However, the country’s security apparatus had put Phnom Penh in a chokehold a day ahead.
The government warned against protests and the local Khmer Times reported that extra police were on hand to respond to potential demonstrations. Main roads were blocked and security personnel visited prominent human rights NGOs to ensure they were not harboring protesters, according to Phnom Penh Post reporter Ananth Baliga.