Liberal, pluralistic, democratic, peaceful, free, fair, and non-violent.
These were the words used by a Cambodian state-affiliated press office to describe how the government will conduct the general election scheduled to take place on July 29, 2018. Campaigning starts on July 7.
A video produced by the Press and Quick Reaction Unit of the Office of the Council of Ministers even boasted that the upcoming election “could be considered one of the best Election (sic) in Cambodia’s history.”
The video was likely intended to address the criticism from local and global civil society groups with respect to the deteriorating state of democracy in Cambodia. The Cambodian People's Party has been in power for 33 years under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is considered to be Southeast Asia’s longest-serving head of state.
The video suggests that, contrary to what critics have been saying in international forums, the election is open to all candidates. It even includes a speech by Hun Sen directing officials to assist all registered political parties during the campaign period.
But the key word there is “registered.” Indeed, it is true that registered parties are free to participate in the elections.
But the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017, after Hun Sen accused it of conspiring with foreign countries to topple his government.
CNRP’s top leaders have either fled the country or are currently detained, and its members of parliament were removed from their posts and banned from running for public office for five years.
The video even makes a claim that Cambodia offers a lesson to other countries on how to promote pluralism, pointing to the fact that in 2013, there were only eight parties competing in the general election. The government today has registered 20 political parties.
The video also highlights the presence of international observers who can visit polling places without any restrictions. The government said 50,000 observers were invited and 300 journalists from 35 institutions were accredited for this year’s election.
But the video fails to mention that in May 2018, the government issued a code of conduct for election observers which media groups said would restrict the work of journalists. The code of conduct prohibits journalists from expressing “personal opinion or prejudice” or conducting unauthorized interviews at polling booths.
The code also criminalizes the broadcasting of news that could cause “confusion and loss of confidence” in the election.
In response to the rule, the International Federation of Journalists said, “These latest guidelines have robbed Cambodians of any chance of vital information to make informed political decisions.”
In another part of the video, the election is touted as a peaceful event “free from rhetoric quarrel.”
The video does not mention the inter-ministerial prakas (regulation) issued on May 28, 2018, that expanded web and social media control in the country. The new directive mandates several government agencies to block websites with content considered as “incitement, breaking solidarity, discrimination and willfully creating turmoil leading to undermining national security, public interest and social order.”
More than 116 civil society groups based in Cambodia signed a statement criticizing the prakas, arguing that it “threatens the privacy rights and freedom of expression of every single internet and social media user in Cambodia and further diminishes the limited space left for public debate following months of attacks on media freedoms.” The statement further reads:
The order can be used to stifle all forms of public discussion in Cambodia. Virtually any opinion which authorities consider unacceptable could fall under its vague, sweeping criteria such as “breaking solidarity” or “undermining social order”.
Aside from attacking the opposition, the Hun Sen government was also accused of undermining free speech after it ordered the filing of tax evasion charges against local radio stations and newspapers which have been mostly critical of the ruling party.
These charges triggered the demise of the country's only two independent newspapers — The Phnom Pehn Post and The Cambodia Daily. After receiving crippling tax bills, the Daily ceased its operations in September 2017, while the Post's owner sold the newspaper to a public relations company that has worked on behalf of the government.
Curiously, the video also stresses that “voter turnout (is) not a factor in determining (the) democratization process.” It even cites the low voting participation rate in countries such as the United States and France. These elements may have been included in light of the fact that the CNRP is urging its supporters and the public to boycott the elections.
Speaking before the United Nations at the end of June 2018, the International Commission of Jurists summarized the criticism of human rights groups about the decline of democracy in Cambodia:
Authorities continue to abuse the legal system to repress civil society, independent media, the political opposition, and increasingly, ordinary individuals.
The Government has threatened prosecution of any person calling for a boycott of the highly compromised elections. It has established a working group to monitor and control all information on websites and social media. Ordinary people are being arrested, charged and detained under a new lèse-majesté law.
Below is the full video of the Press and Quick Reaction Unit of the Office of the Council of Ministers:
Cambodia’s election laws prohibit use of state resources to support party political activities. Indeed this week Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng has pointed this out in a message to Provincial authorities across the country. Somehow the Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh, the equivalent of a Cabinet Office or Presidential Secretariat in other countries, believes that the Law does not apply to its officers. In particular the “The Press and Quick Reaction Unit”is an example of the hypocrisy. It is staffed by public servants, paid for from the public purse, but its sole function is to peddle ruling party propaganda.