This week, on July 29, Cambodians will head to the polls in an election that will be anything but free and fair. Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have spent the past year dismantling the opposition, jailing dissidents, and silencing independent media. It is deeply disappointing that some international countries, including Japan, are lending legitimacy to the vote by continuing to pour in millions of dollars in election aid.
The events in Cambodia stand in stark contrast to my home country of Malaysia, where the opposition Pakatan Harapan (“Alliance of Hope”) coalition ended the government’s 61-year rule in a historic upset in May. Even two months after the polls closed, the ripple effect of the results continues to reverberate across Southeast Asia.
Nobody had really expected the opposition, spearheaded by the nonagenarian former Prime Minister Mohamed Mahathir, to win — not least because the incumbent Barisan Nasional government resorted to familiar “dirty tricks” before the vote. Electoral boundaries were redrawn unconstitutionally, opposition candidates were disqualified on arbitrary grounds, and the government introduced a repressive anti-“fake news” law, which appeared designed to stifle criticism. But Malaysians defied the odds — the voter turnout of 82 percent marked one of the highest recorded electoral participation rates on a weekday.
The key difference between Malaysia and Cambodia, however, is that while the Malaysian opposition competed on an uneven playing field, in Cambodia they are not even allowed onto the pitch. The vote is widely viewed as a sham election, which will only serve to rubber stamp another term for Hun Sen and the CPP.
The CPP, which has ruled the country on and off for decades, has in recent years grown increasingly worried by the threat from the only viable opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP did surprisingly well in parliamentary elections in 2013 and local elections in 2017, gaining more than 40 percent of the vote on both occasions.
Clearly determined to avoid a repeat in this year’s elections, the CPP moved to dissolve the CNRP — through Cambodia’s highly politicized Supreme Court — in November 2017, while authorities had also jailed CPP leader Kem Sokha on trumped up charges just a few months earlier. The absence of the main opposition party from the ballot means that millions of Cambodians have been deprived of real choice. Although some 20 political parties will contest the election, many of these have links to the CPP or are too small to garner sufficient support.
The moves against the opposition are just the tip of the iceberg of the increasingly repressive measures by the CPP, which has led a widespread crackdown on all forms of dissent over the past year. Civil society groups have been forced to shut down and independent media has been all but eliminated, culminating in the enforced sale of the Phnom Penh Post newspaper to a businessman with alleged links to Hun Sen in May.
More recently, Cambodian authorities have taken harsh measures to stamp out calls for an election boycott and other forms of dissent. A government body has been formed to deal with online information that threatens “national security” and media has been instructed to refrain from publishing anything that leads to “confusion and loss of confidence” in the elections. Police have threatened legal action against members of a “Clean Fingers Campaign,” which urges Cambodians to boycott the election. Rights groups have documented other forms of intimidation, including threats to civil servants of docked salaries unless they show up to vote.
At the heart of these measures is Hun Sen’s desperation to maintain a veneer of legitimacy for the elections by ensuring a respectable voter turnout. The government has in the same vein also openly courted international observers and election aid support.
Many foreign donors, such as the United States and the European Union, were quick to withdraw financial aid and have refused to send observers, citing serious irregularities leading up to the vote. Japan, however, in February renewed support for the vote and donated election equipment worth $7.5 million – citing assistance for electoral reform that “reflects the will of the people.” Other countries that have apparently agreed to send observers include China, Myanmar, and Russia.
Japan has historically played a crucial role in democratic and nation-building efforts in Cambodia. Japan was a key stakeholder in the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which codified human rights and democratic principles, including around free and fair elections. Similarly, Tokyo monitored the first ever Cambodian election in 1993, and has remained deeply invested in Cambodia’s development since.
In light of this, it is particularly unfortunate that an established democracy like Japan has turned a blind eye to Hun Sen’s power grab and efforts to undermine a free poll. Election aid is important and commendable in many contexts, but not if it simply serves to lend credibility to a vote that is clearly not democratic and will only embolden what is turning into a one-party state.
As someone who has campaigned for democracy and the rule of law against a repressive regime in Malaysia for many years, I know how important international support can be for the cause. In Malaysia, we proved that democracy can prevail even if the odds are stacked against it – Cambodians will not even have this chance on Sunday. I urge Japan and others that are legitimizing this sham election, whether inadvertently or not, to rethink engagement with Cambodia and to send a clear signal that undermining democracy will not be tolerated. That, truly, would reflect the will of the people.
Hon. Charles Santiago — a member of parliament in Malaysia is the chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights