Cambodia’s political system has become less democratic and human rights have become more curtailed as Prime Minister Hun Sen bolsters his strength through influence and intimidation, particularly ahead of the July 28 national election, according to a new report on U.S.-Cambodia relations prepared last week for the U.S. Congress.
The report cites opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s inability to participate in the election, incomplete and flawed voter lists, the National Election Committee’s close ties with the ruling CPP and the recent decision by the government to expel 27 opposition legislators from the National Assembly, an action which was quickly condemned by the U.S.
“Hun Sen has bolstered his political strength through a combination of electoral victories, influence over the broadcast media and judiciary, legal and extra-legal political maneuvers, intimidation of opponents, patronage, and economic threats,” states the report, written by Thomas Lum, a specialist in Asian affairs for the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS), the research arm of the current 113th U.S. Congress.
“Some critics argue that while electoral processes have improved, Hun Sen possesses unfair campaign advantages through his control over the broadcast media and harassment of political opponents, critics, and civil society actors,” the report states.
“Although political opposition groups may gain parliamentary seats in the upcoming July 2013 national elections by forming a united front and tapping into voter discontent among urban and marginalized groups, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s continued hold on power seems assured.
“Some observers believe that the fairness of the upcoming national elections has already been seriously weakened.”
The CRS report also highlights issues with Cambodia’s land-titling program, the country’s continued heavy reliance on foreign aid, the effect of Chinese investment in the country and the government’s interference in the Khmer Rouge tribunal, to which the U.S. is the third-largest foreign donor.
The report also notes broad economic difficulties the country faces.
“Continuing obstacles to faster and more balanced development and greater foreign investment include poor education and public health, low government capacity, weak legal and financial institutions, inadequate infrastructure, and official corruption.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that while the Cambodian government appreciates the concerns addressed in the report, the U.S. should know that Cambodia is improving.
“The U.S. has become a good partner, but a partnership is not between the governments, but the people. The issues they raised are appreciated, but our partner, the U.S., should learn about what’s happening in Cambodia. Every day, we are gradually improving our way of life. We’ve improved our peace and our political stability is intact,” he said.
“As for the concern of this election, this election…is for freedom of expression and political opposition. This election is about the Cambodian people and not foreigners…and to improve the way of life and the politics. This election is for a democratic society and for the people,” he added.
The report comes on the heels of a more carefully worded statement on Wednesday by the European Union recommending that the NEC take steps to ensure July’s national election is free and fair.
The Foreign Ministry quickly responded with a strong rebuke, accusing the E.U. of interfering in Cambodia’s sovereignty, and defending the fairness of the upcoming election.
But the report to Congress is not all damning.
It says Cambodia has made some progress in the past 10 years and that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has taken steps to deepen ties—partly because of China’s influence over the Phnom Penh government.
“During the past decade, Cambodia has made fitful progress in some areas of U.S. interest and concern, including the conduct of elections, the development of a vibrant civil society, the protection of labor rights, bringing some Khmer Rouge leaders to justice, and improving public health. After a period of relative stability and prosperity, Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) appear to enjoy popular support, particularly in rural areas,” the report states.
U.S. Embassy spokesman John Simmons declined to comment on the report, saying he had not seen it, and instead said the embassy shares concerns addressed by U.S. senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, who drafted a resolution to the Senate on June 7 requesting that the U.S. withdraw foreign aid due to Cambodia’s poor human rights record and election reform failures.
“I cannot speak to it right now. I will have to see the report. We share the same concerns as expressed in the senators’ resolution,” he said.