Cambodia became a democracy on October 23, 1991, when the desire to end the 12-year civil war prompted them to sign the Paris Peace Agreements.
The Agreements included an 18-month peacekeeping mission that involved holding multiparty elections starting in 1993. The Agreeements, in conjunction with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), transformed Cambodia’s political climate. Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, did not have much of a choice in the decision to implement the Paris settlements; however, Hun Sen has strategically worked around this agreement. He has been ruling the country for over 30 years now due to his strategic timing during and between elections. He allows the country to have competitive elections, however, they are rarely fair. There is a lot of vote buying and intimidation tactics behind Sen’s elections. As a result, he never accepted the program’s legitimacy and saw foreign-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as a violation of Cambodian sovereignty.
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More recently, Cambodia’s political climate has been becoming less and less stable for democracy to thrive. The first sign of decline was on September 4, 2017 when The Cambodia Daily, one of the most popular and reliable news sources of political and social issues, was forced to shut down. Hun Sen ordered that the small newspaper pay a $6.3 million tax bill due to an accusation that it had not paid taxes previously, giving them no choice but to shut down operations. This put an end to the independent newspaper’s well-thought out critiques and expos?s of the government, ruining the spirit of the company, which can be found in their famous slogan, “All the News Without Fear or Favor.
“Coincidentally, The Cambodia Daily’s last day happened in the same time period that Kem Sokha, the Cambodian opposition leader, was arrested by the Cambodian government. Sokha was accused of conspiring with the United States to overthrow the current government. The Cambodian government justified charging him with treason through a video of Sokha speaking in Australia in 2013. In the video, Sokha’s statements are vague and hardly sufficient enough to justify a sentence of 15-30 years in prison. The government has now made it clear that if the opposition party, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), continues to support Sokha, then they, too, could face harsh punishment in disbandment.On top of a threat to completely dissolve the opposition party, the Cambodian government has banned local radio stations from playing United States funded broadcasts. The National Democratic Institute (NDI), which is a pro-democracy NGO funded by the United States, was also ordered to shut down.
Donald Trump’s presidency has also negatively affected Cambodia’s view of the United States as a champion of democracy. His election has delegitimized U.S efforts to promote liberal democracy internationally.
The Cambodian government continues to reject Western influences and increasingly accepts Chinese influence. China has been financially supporting Cambodia for the past 15 years, which makes Cambodia less dependent on Western governments. China gives the Cambodian economy investing approximately $857 million and sending $320 million in aid (as of 2015), which is a stark difference from the modest or declining aid from Western countries. This allows for Hun Sen to have more freedom to continue to rule in the manner that he wants to. For example, the Cambodian parliament passed the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations despite a boycott arranged by the opposition. What makes this case so interesting is that the dialogue is still going on right now.
More recently, on November 16, 2017, the Supreme Court will rule on a case brought on by order the Prime Minister to completely destroy the CNRP. They are doing this under the accusation that the CNRP was attempting to stage a “color revolution,” which is infamously known to be a part of democratic breakthroughs. The only problem that the government is running into is that they have no evidence of illegality. There are hopes that the Supreme Court will effectively uphold the rule of law to stabilize the future of the CNRP. However, the Supreme Court thus far has been very government controlled, as it “dissolved the main opposition party and imposed political bans of five years on 118 of its members,” Human Rights Watch said on November 16, 2017.These very large steps in such a short amount of time provide evidence that Hun Sen is fearful of losing the upcoming 2018 elections.
Sen is rightfully nervous considering the previous elections in 2013, when the CNRP gathered 44% of the popular vote. Following the 2013 election, there were protests that were violently broken up, showing that the Cambodian people are becoming more aware of their political state and are discontent with corruption and land issues.