Cambodia Government versus Opposition: Why has Cambodia’s longest serving PM arrested his political opponents and put them on trial?

Cambodia’s PM Hun Sen launched a sweeping crackdown on his opponents in 2017 charging them with treason and illegal attempt to take power. Most opposition leaders of CNRP were arrested along with their supporters. The opposition charges the PM and his party the CPP of human rights abuses, torture, control of media and corruption. As the government and opposition battles it out, the world is watching the court proceedings with keen interest.

The crackdown on political opponents by Prime Minister Hun Sen which started in 2017 has now reached the next stage. On Thursday, 26th November, a Cambodian court began hearing into the cases of over 120 opponents and government critics who have been charged with treason. They have also been charged with taking part in protests deemed illegal by the government.

The opposition says that these protests against the government have been largely non-violent and the trial in court is a sham. Those on trial say that the government is using the courts to block the international community from knowing the truth about the serious human rights violations and political repression in Cambodia under the  Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) government. The government says that the opposition activists in cohorts with ‘foreign’ forces tried to topple the government and hence the arrests and trial were a necessity to keep the country intact.

Most of those arrested and being tried by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court are former members or supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). In 2018, the CNRP was the sole opposition party in Parliament and was a formidable challenge to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP in the 2018 general election.

As the opposition prepared a series of protests against the CPP government in 2017 a year before elections, PM Hun Sen launched a sweeping crackdown on his opponents charging them with treason and illegal attempt to take power. Most opposition leaders of CNRP were arrested along with their supporters. Many who were abroad at the time of the crackdown have not yet returned to the country.

Local reports say that all media were pressured to tone down their coverage of the crackdown and those critical were ordered to be shut. Hun Sen and his political party are alleged to have near total dominance over the mainstream media for the majority of their rule. Most of the TV Channels and newspapers are owned by the party and his leaders.

On 16 November 2017, the Supreme Court of Cambodia ruled to dissolve the CNRP. The dissolution of the CNRP by the court  was forced by the high court to disband and its lawmakers were removed from Parliament. Activists in Cambodia critical of the government believe the court acted in favor of Hun Sen’s party to ensure that he won by sweeping all the seats.

The charges against the opposition leaders which include treason and incitement to commit a felony, together carry a maximum penalty of 12 years in prison.

One of the best known opposition activists who has also been charged with treason is Theary Seng, who is also the face of the protests. Seng is a Cambodian-American lawyer who has long been one of the most outspoken critics of Hun Sen and his government. Speaking to the media a few days ago, Seng described the trial as a sham scripted by Hun Sen’s regime. “It’s only a way to block the view of the international community of the real serious issues of human rights violations, of political repression”, she was quoted as saying.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith said since June 2019 more than 150 people associated with the CNRP have faced arrest.

Sam Rainsy, the co-founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, has been in exile since 2016. He says the cases against him were politically motivated and he has remained in exile to avoid serving prison sentences for defamation and other offenses.

“Delay on the one hand, bluster on the other: Hun Sen’s Kangaroo Court in Phnom Penh is showing incoherence and double standards in dealing with legal cases during COVID-19. The pandemic has led to the case against #CNRP leader Kem Sokha, which should be dropped entirely due to lack of evidence, being indefinitely postponed. Meanwhile, more than 60 leading figures in the CNRP have been summoned to a “trial” starting on November 26.”, he tweeted on November 17.

On the trial he tweeted, “The aim has nothing to do with justice, or COVID-19, but is to attack and undermine the unity of the CNRP. That is an impossible strategy which will never succeed. Over 120 #CNRP – Cambodia’s main opposition- members are summoned by the Municipality Court for a trial , the same day, same hour, same judges. What do you call such a trial?’, he wrote on Twitter.

Hun Sen has served as the Prime Minister of Cambodia since 1985 and is the longest-serving head of government of Cambodia, and one of the longest-serving leaders in the world. He has led the CPP since 1998 to consecutive victories and is currently serving in his sixth term as prime minister. His political opponents have accused him of being a Vietnamese puppet.

Pm Hun Sen is pitted against opposition leaders and activists with Sam Rainsy (top right), Theary Seng and Mu Sochua (bottom right) being the prominent voices against the PM and his party.

In his defence, Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to continue his fight against opposition politicians who he said intend to smash the Hun family and the country for their own benefit. Without naming the politicians, he said there would be no political compromise until they have resolved their court cases.

The prime minister alluded to the words of former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy and his political slogan: “If there is Sy [Rainsy], there will be no Sen, and if there is Sen, there will be no Sy”.

“If your goal is to reconcile with Cambodia, that’s okay. But if you want to destroy the Hun family line, I want to send this message to you: “I don’t have to think twice. If you are ready to fight me, I have to fight you. I will not compromise anymore,” he said, reports Phnompenhpost.

“Those who must go through legal procedures have to go through that first before a political talk. There will be no political compromise before the court procedure. Only after you serve sentence can we talk about this,” Hun Sen said “There are no political prisoners, but there are people who committed criminal offences. Cambodia will not have another Paris Peace Accords,” Hun Sen has reportedly said.

Human Rights activists however target Hun Sen and his top party leaders and generals over political arrests, torture, control of media and controlling judiciary. Hun Sen and several of his senior officials were members of the Khmer Rouge regime, which between April 1975 and January 1979 was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.2 to 2.8 million Cambodians. His opponents allege that Hun Sen has continued the rule of the Khmer Rouge under his ‘autocratic’ rule.

Hun Sen rejects the allegations and has repeatedly said that he was instrumental in the fall of the Khmer Rouge and for prosecuting the surviving members of the Pol Pot regime for war crimes. He has on earlier occasions said that he has upheld the pride of Cambodia and worked in its interest as he ensured that every war crime was tried under the Cambodian court system and he did not allow foreign entities to control the country as was expected. He has claimed that his rule brought about a national reconciliation.

With both the opposition and the ruling party trading charges, the world will witness the court proceedings and trials with keen interest. 

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