Cambodia on ‘Cusp’ of Authoritarianism: Report

After a breakdown in political discourse last year led to a sometimes-violent offensive against opposition leaders and activists, Cam­bo­dia slipped 10 spots in the Econ­o­mist Intelligence Unit’s latest Democ­ra­cy Index—to the “cusp” of authoritarianism.

The report, released late last week, says that while Cambodia was given a boost in the 2014 in­dex thanks to that year’s deal be­tween the government and op­po­sition CNRP—which ended a 10-month political impasse—recent developments have caused the country’s democratic situation to deteriorate.

“In Cambodia a 2014 deal between the ruling Cambodian Peo­ple’s Party (CPP) and the op­position broke down when the government began a crackdown on the opposition in October 2015, prompting a sharp fall in the country’s score and ranking,” says the report, ranking it 113 out of 167 countries surveyed.

Since October, two CNRP lawmakers have been beaten outside of parliament by a pro-CPP mob, deputy opposition leader Kem So­kha has been removed from his po­sition as vice president of the Na­tional Assembly and two arrest warrants have been issued for CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who is once again in self-imposed exile.

“Cambodia dropped ten places in our rankings, from 103 to 113, with its score leaving it on the cusp of the ‘authoritarian regime’ category,” the report says.

The annual index is described “as a snapshot of the state of de­mocracy worldwide,” and is based on five factors: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties.

Contacted on Tuesday, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said he was unconcerned about the re­port, whose publisher is headquartered in London.

“I am not interested in evaluations or rankings of countries,” Mr. Eysan said. “Now, the standard of living for Cambodian people is improving.”

“Another country’s evaluation of Cambodia is not important.”

While the CPP spokesman brushed off this year’s Democ­ra­cy Index, political analysts and hu­man rights monitors said Cam­bo­dia’s poor showing was well warranted.

Chak Sopheap, executive di­rector of the Cambodian Cen­ter for Human Rights, said Cambo­dia’s low ranking came as “no surprise.”

“The last year has seen a number of troubling developments which have represented a major step backwards for Cambodia’s democratic development, none more so than the crackdown against the political opposition following the breakdown of the so-called ‘culture of dialogue’ be­tween the CPP and the CNRP,” she said in an email.

“The disappointing ranking certainly reflects that democracy is under threat in Cambodia.”

Political commentator Kem Ley, who last year founded the “Khmer for Khmer” grassroots advocacy group, said the country was particularly deficient in terms of its “political culture.”

“Only one individual or only one family controls all the system including the Royal Palace,” he said, referring to Mr. Hun Sen and his relations.

Mr. Ley added that with past CPP governments having prom­ised reforms that had never materialized, coupled with increasing political awareness among citizens, the country was approaching a “turning point.”

“Right now, the people are thirsty for a democratic country, but the government—the older leaders with the old culture—don’t want to change,” he said.

Ou Virak, a prominent political analyst, said that while Cambodia deserved to be ranked low on the index, it had been a “mistake” to ever give it a bump based on the July 2014 political deal.

“The deal didn’t improve a thing,” Mr. Virak said, adding last year’s index had looked like “analysis from afar.”

“The CPP is feeling under threat. Their grip on power is actually under threat. The question is actually how they are going to react. Are they going to react by reforms and become more democratic so that they please the young generation? Or are they going to go actually for a crackdown on every aspect of life in Cambodia?”

“I think we don’t know yet.”

(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy)

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