Cambodia’s Democratic Progress Stymied in 2015

The evolution of Cambodia’s democracy saw significant setbacks last year, with the government repeatedly violating the law, suppressing freedom of expression and over-seeing continued state corruption, according to an annual report released by a watchdog on Tuesday.

Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel), which compiled the study, warned that Cambodia was faltering on its path to democracy with local and national elections approaching in the next two years.

“The government cracked down on the opposition last year—with physical assaults, legal harassment and arrests,” he said. “The freedom to demonstrate was also restricted, and the freedom of association is under threat with the new NGO law.”

The Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations came into force in August, despite widespread concern from donors and rights organizations including Comfrel, who fear it will be used to impede the work of those critical of the ruling party.

The report adds that curbs to free speech also moved online last year with the prosecution and imprisonment of citizens who expressed anti-government opinions on the Internet. Comfrel also noted that the last year brought numerous examples of the judiciary being beholden to the CPP.

“In total, fourteen CNRP officials and supporters were charged, prosecuted and imprisoned under questionable and dubious legal circumstances,” it says.

A separate study released on Tuesday by Comfrel shows that recorded instances of state-based corruption increased by about 35 percent last year, based on information gathered from rights groups, public surveys and trusted media outlets.

The report found 297 recorded cases of political corruption last year, including 135 cases of bribes and fraud and 133 related to the misuse of state resources. Complicit in the abuse of power for political gain were “senior government officials and commanders in chief of armed forces as well as senior national police officials,” it says.

Political analyst Ou Virak said there was a direct connection between rife corruption, weak legal institutions and a general lack of government accountability, but said that despite its failings, the ruling party had shown signs of being more attentive to the public.

“A lot of young people are now taking part in expressing their own opinion, in massive numbers,” he said. “And though the ruling party are not perfect, they are responding to this pressure to try to please voters—that’s how democracy should work.”

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Comfrel’s reports overlooked numerous reforms the government had made to improve the state of democracy and limit corruption.

“That organization never says anything positive about the government. I don’t really pay much attention to them,” Mr. Siphan said.

“First, the Anti-Corruption Law is working to change the mindset and behavior of government officials. Secondly, we are more closely monitoring wealth irregularities among officials and citizens,” he said.

“As for democracy, high-ranking ministers do go to the grassroots to speak to people, which improves the government’s core role as a service provider.”

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan took his criticism a step further, counting Comfrel among “extremists” working against the government.

“According to the evaluation of some senior figures, democracy in Cambodia has not decreased,” Mr. Eysan said. “United States Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama even evaluated that Cambodia has been rescued from war and is getting better.”

“But there are some Cambodian extremists who make evaluations like this—it is not correct,” he added.

Despite progress in some areas, the research’s broad findings point to the pressing need for holistic and systematic government reforms, said Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia.

The state’s anti-corruption body and the judiciary continue to lack independence, there is not a functioning government audit mechanism, and state revenue collection and spending continue to be opaque, he explained.

“There are many things that need to be done at various levels.”

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