Political: The 2018 Cambodian general election will be held on 29 July, with the electorate voting for the sixth National Assembly, the lower house of government in Cambodia. 125 seats will be contested in this election (up from 123 in the previous vote) with 63 required for a majority. There are 20 parties on the ballot but only four parties currently hold seats – the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) with 79 seats, the generally pro-government FUNCINPEC (National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia) with 41 seats, the Cambodian Nationality Party (CNP) which holds two seats, while a singular seat is held by the KEDP or the Khmer Economic Development Party. The National Assembly holds a mandate for five years and members elected by proportional representation, using provincial constituencies consisting of one to 18 members. The election period is already underway.
The Cambodian Strongman and the Opposition
The CPP led by Prime Minister Hun Sen is almost guaranteed victory in this election. Hun has acted as de facto leader of Cambodia since 1985 and was one of the rebel leaders who, backed by Vietnam, overthrew the genocidal Khmer Rouge in 1979. Hun Sen has promised to rule until he reaches the age of 74, nine years from now. Since his time as leader, he has ruled with an iron fist and has crushed dissent. He has been accused of torturing opponents of his government by Amnesty International. The previous election in 2013, saw his party’s majority slip, with the CPP losing 22 seats and the CNRP (Cambodia National Rescue Party) led by Sam Rainsy, gaining 26 seats to win 55 in total. Despite this significant gain, Sam and his followers alleged that poll fraud was committed by the government and boycotted parliament, only taking their seats in July 2014.
Following the 2013 election, Hun has worked even harder to silence his opposition. Sam was previously forced into exile in 2005 and was charged for defamation after accusing the ruling CPP-FUNCINPEC coalition of corruption in 2010. He was subsequently granted a royal pardon at the request of Hun Sen and returned to the country. However, in 2016, was again banned from politics and compelled to leave Cambodia again after accusing the government of murdering activist Kem Ley and was replaced as Minority Leader by Kem Sokha. Following Prime Minister Hun Sen’s orders, in January 2017, the National Assembly voted unanimously to abolish the Minority Leader and Majority Leader positions to lessen the influence of opposition parties. Also, in 2017, Sam Rainsy resigned as President of the CNRP, with Kem Sokha succeeding him in this position. Kem was then arrested in September 2017 on politically-motivated treason charges for alleged involvement in the 2014 Veng Sreng street protests (to be discussed in more detail later) and remains in prison. The CNRP was subsequently dissolved after the National Assembly effectively gave the government authority to ban opposition parties; the CNRP was accused of attempting to overthrow the government by Hun Sen and his supporters. Its seats were then distributed to other parties in the parliament with pro-government positions.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has not only targeted opposition parties in his attack on dissent. During his purge of the opposition in 2017, the sole dissenting voice in the media – the Cambodia Daily, printed in English and Khmer – was closed down over allegations of unpaid taxes, which the newspaper disputed. The newspaper has since relaunched as an online-only publication which the government has blocked access to.
The election is set to be neither free nor fair and not only for the reasons mentioned above. While 50,000 international election observers have been invited to monitor the general election, they are mostly from China, Myanmar, and Singapore. China, a key backer of the Hun regime, is itself an authoritarian country, while Singapore and Myanmar have serious democratic deficiencies. China has provided Cambodia with ballot boxes and computers for the election after the European Union and the US pulled out, claiming the election will not be credible. Moreover, despite there being 19 other parties on the ballot to technically oppose Hun and his party, most are tiny, underfunded, underprepared, or generally supportive of (and often sponsored by) the ruling CPP. They are only on the ballot to give the pretence of a real democratic fight in this election and will soon disappear after 29 July 2018.
The 2013 election saw an extended period of unrest. For a year after the July 2013 vote, anti-government protesters, led by the CNRP, took to the streets of the capital Phnom Penh and other cities, spurred on by allegations of electoral fraud, corruption, and poor living conditions. Notable events during this period include:
03 January 2014 – Military police fired on striking garment workers on Veng Sreng Street, Por Senchey District, on the outskirts of the capital. The event led to four fatalities and more than 20 injuries.
04 January 2014 – Cambodian authorities entered the main protest camp and dispersed protesters using force. The government subsequently banned protests and summoned opposition leaders to Phnom Penh Municipal Court for allegedly inciting protesters. The ban on protests was lifted in the following month.
15 July 2017 – Hundreds of protesters marched at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park. Violence erupted and at least eight security officials were injured in clashes. Six opposition MPs were arrested. Later in the month, the CNRP finally committed to joining parliament. Freedom Park has since become inaccessible to visitors due to it being a key site for protesting.
The violence faced international condemnation and even led to anti-government protests in the US. Due to the actions of the security forces during this unrest and the government’s position to those who oppose it, public dissent has been crushed in Cambodia. Protests which once saw thousands attend now only attract a few hundred at most, as activists fear the potential outcome if they partake in any demonstrations. Human Rights Watch has also reported that members of the police and military have been seen campaigning actively for the ruling party, not acting neutrally, which many would consider to be a basic democratic norm.
Demonstrations are certainly possible before the election on 29 July but are more likely to be in favour of the regime. For example, on 07 July, a rally was held by CCP in Koh Pich area of the capital city and reportedly drew around 60,000 (though some suggest payment was offered for some to attend). Independent election watchdogs have already noted that this election period, partly due to the lack of a serious opposition, has been far more subdued compared to 2013.
Due to the crushing of dissent in Cambodia, travellers should avoid discussion of politics in the country as it may lead to arrest or a forceful response from the local populous or security forces. All protests should be avoided, especially those arranged by opponents of the government. There is a high potential for violence at such events with security forces likely to use aggressive means to disperse any crowds.
Travellers should also expect disruption at pro-government events and on polling day. Security measures are set to be increased at such locations. All instructions given by authorities should be adhered to as there is the potential for a forceful response. Travellers can follow Solace Secure or use local media to stay up to date on political events.
Solace Global may advise clients to employ enhanced security measures when visiting Cambodia. This could include an airport meet and greet and a locally-vetted driver for the length of a visit. It may be advisable to increase this level of security depending on the area of travel or the profile for the traveller. Travellers should always use a travel-tracking platform with an integrated intelligence feed to stay updated on events in their proximity and to inform others in case of an emergency.