As Cambodia’s general election approaches in July 2018, concerns have been growing internationally about the state of human rights, media freedom and political participation in the country.
When Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen visited Sydney for the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in late March, hundreds of Cambodian Australians protested. Before the summit, Hun Sen had threatened to beat would-be protesters if they burned effigies of him – which they later did.
“The diaspora there are very active politically. The protests were huge,” says exiled opposition MP Mu Sochua. “One of the protesters was 95 years old. They came from Adelaide, Melbourne.”
Mu Sochua is vice-president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in charge of foreign affairs and international relations. The party was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November.
She spoke to the Asia Media Centre in late March, having travelled to New Zealand with financial support from Cambodian New Zealanders. The holder of a United States passport, she has been travelling from country to country since leaving Cambodia in October fearing arrest. “It is important for me to come to New Zealand. Every single country counts.”
Cambodia has been ruled by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (PPP) since 1985. The last general election in 2013 saw the closest result since Cambodia’s return to democracy in 1998 after decades of war. The CNRP – a new grouping that had combined two opposition parties – came close to unseating Hun Sen and the election results were disputed.
In September 2017, CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested and charged with treason, accused of colluding with the US against Hun Sen. International leaders, including New Zealand’s Foreign Minister at the time Gerry Brownlee, condemned the arrest.
Cambodia’s next national election is set for 29 July this year. But there is no real challenge to the ruling party since Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, at the request of the government.
“We have to have an international campaign — because we can’t do anything inside Cambodia.”
CNRP had 55 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly. “We covered over 44 percent,” Mu Sochua says. “They distributed all of our seats to the parties that had won nothing.”
CNRP had another 5007 locally-elected representatives, after winning those seats in the 2017 local elections. Ninety percent of their redistributed seats were claimed by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
After Sokha’s arrest in September, the CNRP divided itself into two groups, Mu Sochua says. She took a group into a remote north-eastern area of Cambodia. “We were followed the entire time.” Soon after, she received a call from police advising she needed to leave or she would be arrested.
She fled to Thailand, joining about a dozen CNRP MPs who were already there. She then travelled on to St Petersburg, Russia, to present at a session of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s governing council, surprising the official delegation from Cambodia. The IPU, comprising 178 member parliaments worldwide, has issued several statements expressing concern about the treatment of opposition MPs in Cambodia.
Mu Sochua and other exiled opposition MPs have continued to travel from country to country, talking to politicians, government agencies and NGOs. In December, she met Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. In February, she was one of the keynote speakers at a conference in ANU – Cambodia on the Brink – alongside former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans and Cambodia-born Australian MP Hong Lim. After her New Zealand visit, she travelled to Canada for a meeting of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.
“We have to have an international campaign – because we can’t do anything inside Cambodia.”
New Zealand has a big role to play, she says, pointing to the fact it represented 45 countries in making a joint statement at the meeting of the UN Human Rights Council expressing concern about a decline in civil and political rights.
The CNRP has several requests of the international community, Mu Sochua says. The US has already imposed visa sanctions on high-ranking officials “known to have taken part in the death of democracy” – and the party would like to see other countries follow that lead.
“We all want to go home, because we know we could win the next election.”
The opposition is also asking governments to withdraw any support they provide to institutions in Cambodia – “not development assistance, but support for institutions” – and for the freezing of assets owned by the Cambodian People’s Party abroad, Mu Sochua says.
“The last thing we ask for would be economic sanctions. That would be the last resort,” she says.
“The other thing is the issue of asylum for our members here in New Zealand. There are at least two members of parliament here.”
In all, two-thirds of the Cambodian National Rescue Party’s MPs are now living outside Cambodia, she says. “We all want to go home, because we know we could win the next election.”
With about 70 percent of Cambodia’s population under the age of 30, social media has been vital for the CNRP’s engagement, she says.
On March 8, clashes over a long-running land dispute in Kratie province saw security officers firing at protesters, with conflicting reports about whether anyone was killed.
Mu Sochua says the incident first came to light because it was filmed and shared on social media. It prompted a statement from the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, who happened to be in Cambodia on a fact-finding mission.
Mu Sochua says economic land concessions – in which the government has allocated swathes of land to domestic and international investors – and illegal deforestation have hurt rural Cambodians badly, with more and more people being displaced. About 85 percent of the Cambodian workforce is employed in farming.
“At the local level, people are now politically active, very politically engaged. The issues at local level are the issues that affect the everyday lives of people.”
– Asia Media Centre