Foreign Policy Blogs

Decreasing Freedom in Cambodia

Cambodia has never been known as a haven for free speech and political dissent, but several recent developments in the country have observers even more concerned about the shrinking space for political expression.

Last week, a Cambodian court found an outspoken opposition MP guilty of defamation for filing her own defamation suit against Prime Minister Hun Sen.  The case has been a high profile one for months in the Southeast Asian country and has polarized the public, but observers claim that the conviction of Mu Sochua is proof of a growing crackdown on dissent by the Cambodian government.

The case arose out of a speech Sen made in April in Kampot province, the province that Sochua represents in parliament and one of the provinces that has seen forcible evictions by the army for their land.  Although Sochua was not mentioned by name, comments that Sen made deriding and insulting the province’s parliamentary representation were clearly aimed at her.  Sochua responded by doing the unthinkable – she filed a defamation suit against the Prime Minister for his comments.  The case was immediately rejected by the courts, but Sen fired back by filing his own defamation suit against Sochua for filing against him.  The courts upheld his suit and last Tuesday, handed down a ruling in Sen’s favor against Sochua and fined her $4000.

The result was not surprising in a country where the government has a long history with interfering with the courts.  But it is also just the most recent development in the government’s mission to silence criticism.  There have been numerous lawsuits filed against prominent opposition members, journalists, and human rights activists in recent months that seem aimed at intimidating dissent.  The charges usually involve libel or disinformation, and the cases always end with conviction.  Some of the targets have been jailed, some have fled the country to avoid jail, and some have capitulated and abandoned their critical positions to swear allegiance to the ruling party in order to avoid the courts.

This trend is not new, but continues without consequences from the international community.  The government is even suspected of interfering with the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the hybrid tribunal set up by the UN to try people for grave crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.  But all the international community does is weakly protest such interference before allowing it to continue.  The same appears to be happening regarding the domestic courts, where the rule of law is actually the rule of Sen’s law.

Opposition parties are now divided about what to do.  Continuing to criticize government policies is a losing battle that some seem keen to give up, while others feel that it is their duty as political representatives, activists, and journalists to keep fighting that battle, especially because of the growing pressures on dissent.  It is likely that in the future, Sochua’s trial will be seen as a turning point for the Cambodian opposition, but at this moment it is unclear what that future will be.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa