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Is Democracy Dying?

A man paints over the logo of the Cambodia National Rescue Party at its headquarters in Phnom Penh. Photo: Getty Images.A man paints over the logo of the Cambodia National Rescue Party at its headquarters in Phnom Penh. Photo: Getty Images.

In the days following the dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), I headed to Phnom Penh to witness the changes on the ground since my last visit over two years ago.  On November 16, Cambodia’s Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the CNRP, and ban 118 of its senior officials from any political activity in the Kingdom for five years, effectively removing the sole threat to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s continuation of his 32-year rule.

The court’s case was predicated on an accusation the CNRP was attempting to overthrow the government through a “color revolution” aided by the United States.  Evidence presented in court consisted of two videos taken in 2013 allegedly of party leader Kem Sokha admitting to receiving U.S. training, and of former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy calling on the armed forces to turn their guns on the government.  Rainsy remains in exile since fleeing to France in 2013, while Sokha was arrested on September 3 on charges of “treason” and imprisoned.

The dissolution of the main opposition party has led to an international outcry, with Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch calling the ruling the “death of democracy” and “a political killing of the Paris Peace Accords”, while the International Commission of Jurists pointed to a “human rights and rule of law crisis” in Cambodia.  The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, also weighed in, arguing Cambodia was now ushering in a “new era of de facto one-party rule”.

Walking the streets of Phnom Penh, I sensed a profound resignation among the city’s residents and many of the tourists seemed unaware of the changes taking place.  A security guard interviewed by the Phnom Penh Post expressed the people’s frustration, saying “The people dare not to express their opinion or change, because if one stands up, that one will be jailed. If two stand up, two will be jailed,” while also predicting people would be similarly happy to see Hun Sen removed from power.

The Phnom Penh Post also spoke with 21-year-old Sok Sophorn, who argued, “For the upcoming election, I think it is meaningless because there is only one side, therefore who can [people] vote for?”  “Our country, law and power is in his [Hun Sen’s] hands. Everything belongs to him and if he orders them to go left, they go left and when he orders them right, they go right.”  

The changes to democracy in Cambodia will likely be a topic of discussion on December 7, when the Foreign Policy Association welcomes Dr. Dambisa Moyo, economist and author, to address the topic Is Democracy Dying? at the Harvard Club in New York.  A related concern, however, is how democracy is dying, and whether Chinese money and investment (flowing into Cambodia and other countries), will convince the people to trade their voice for economic benefit.  



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. [email protected]

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