The international community failed to support the rule of law in Cambodia

By Brandais York
PhD Candidate Melbourne Law School; former International Consultant, Phnom Penh

This election has seen the most significant subversion of Cambodian democracy since the 1993 UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) launched the country’s electoral system.

Official results in the Cambodian election are not due until later this month, but there will be no surprises.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), who have ruled Cambodia for nearly 33 years, have won; and a CPP spokesman has claimed that the party has won all 125 parliamentary seats.

Government crackdown

Last November, the Cambodian Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) led by Sam Rainsy, on grounds of “collusion” with the US government to take power. Rainsy’s co-leader, Kem Sokha, has been imprisoned since last September on related charges of treason.

By May of this year, all independent news sources had been effectively shut down. The Cambodia Daily was shuttered last year after a hefty tax bill dispute, and the Phnom Penh Post was sold to Sivakumar Ganapthy, a Malaysian businessman with rumoured ties to the CPP. In the days immediately preceding this election, at least 17 independent news websites were blocked within Cambodia by request of the Information Ministry while government backed sites were allowed.

The current mood in Phnom Penh stands in stark contrast to the buzz that dominated the streets ahead of the last national election in July of 2013. With no demonstrations planned and most opposition party members or activists either behind bars, under threat of punitive action, or in exile, the streets of the capital have been silent.


The most defiant voices spoke of a boycott against the entire system, rather than the hope that the CPP could be defeated. Speaking to waiters, tuk tuk drivers, and other private citizens in Phnom Penh this week, many confided in me that they had chosen to cast invalid ballots, or not to vote at all.

Rainsy and others encouraged their supporters through social media to decline to vote, in the hope that a very low voter turnout could spur international action against the results.

But those who abstained could face punitive action or other forms of persecution. Earlier this month, a CPP spokesperson said in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review that boycotting the election would be tantamount to “treason.”

While official reports are not due until later this month, the National Election Committee has reported a voter turnout of over 82% - despite reports of large-scale validity problems with cast ballots.

To the untrained eye, the streets of Phnom Penh were calm this time around. But for those of us that have witnessed the rise and fall of democratic advocacy in just five years, the stillness was unnerving.

No international legitimacy

The US, the European Union, and Japan all declined to fund this election because they were concerned about a lack of real opposition. Western countries also jointly declined to send electoral observers, following a trend in domestic independent observers refusing to participate.

In response, the CPP invited observers from China, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore in an attempt to bring legitimacy to the results. Officials have also drawn on individual participation from observers with ties to the UK Independence Party, Italy’s Fratelli d’Italia, and other far-right populist parties in Asia and Europe.

However, on Wednesday China offered its congratulations to Cambodia for what it called a “smooth election.” After a meeting with his Cambodian counterpart in Singapore, Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi made further statements in support of Cambodia, urging against foreign “interference.”

Too late for international pressure?

In February, the United States expressed “deep concern” about “recent setbacks to democracy in Cambodia”, announcing it would reduce development assistance to Cambodian bodies the US regarded as linked to anti-democratic behaviour.

In the week leading up to the election, the US House of Representatives passed legislation that would, if approved by the Senate, impose visa bans on Cambodian officials that have demonstrated actions to “undermine democracy.” Following the election, the White House released a statement describing it as “flawed” and “the most significant setback yet to the democratic system”.

The region’s closest Western neighbour – Australia – has not rejected the outcome of the election, but Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says the Australian Government has “serious concerns”. The EU is considering trade sanctions, due to “a serious decline in the area of political and electoral rights”.

Support from China

Earlier this year, an infrastructure development and loan deal worth billions was signed between the two nations, partially in exchange for Cambodia’s support for Beijing in its South China Sea disputes. This is just the latest in a long string of large-scale loan and aid packages, reportedly granted without any conditionality. Rights groups have expressed concern about China’s growing influence for years, but its role in attempting to bring legitimacy to this latest election is of particular concern within the region.

Given China’s support, even the harshest sanctions against Hun Sen and his government are unlikely to ruffle feathers. Domestic and international rights groups were critical of what they perceived to be “muted” international pressure in the months leading up to Sunday’s election. Now, with China firmly in his corner, Hun Sen seems unlikely to respond to criticism. With what is now effectively a one-party state, it seems very little will stand in his way.

Since 1993, the international community has been hopeful that rule of law will take hold in Cambodia. Letting this election run without opposition or dispute has proven that the experiment has failed.

The international community had a chance for critical response mechanisms at many points over the last year. In response to Hun Sen jailing his opposition leaders, shutting down independent media and threatening rights groups, very little was even said.

Now, it could be too late.

Image: Woman on boat in Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Credit: Juan Antonio Segal/Flickr


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