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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Cambodian democracy under fire

Oct. 25, 2017

Cambodia is scheduled to hold a national election next year. Following the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, the country suffered more than a decade of civil war. In 1993, the United Nations administered a democratic election. But after a quarter of a century, Cambodia's democracy is under threat.

On election day in Japan last week, a Cambodian man was watching the news coverage with intense interest. "Does this political party have a background as an NGO?" wondered Koul Panha.

Koul Panha is the executive director of Cambodia's leading NGO on electoral issues, COMFREL. During elections, COMFREL deploys thousands of volunteers as independent observers to polling stations throughout the country. Over the past 20 years, Panha has been a strong advocate for democracy in Cambodia.

He visited Japan for a symposium on the 25th anniversary of the first UN-led election in Cambodia. Participants called for more international awareness of the deterioration of democracy. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Panha lost his father and many other relatives. The tragedy is shared by most Cambodians who lived through those years.

The Khmer Rouge regime had collapsed after Vietnam invaded in 1979. A devastating civil war followed, that lasted for more than a decade.

"We have experience in one-party rule during the Khmer Rouge time and during 2nd communist time. People suffered human rights violations, killings, oppression, hunger, poverty. The Cambodian people see the importance of liberal democracy and the respect of human rights," says Panha.

The Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1991, ending the civil war. Two years later, Cambodia held its first national election administered by the United Nations, and Hun Sen was elected as prime minister.

25 years have passed and he's still in his job. But in recent years, tides are changing for the ruling party of Hun Sen. The communal election held in June was a close race. Many Cambodians voted for the opposition party led by Kem Sokha.

"In the 2013 election and the communal 2017 election, the outcomes show a close race between the ruling party and the opposition. They do not respect pluralism in the national assembly, in the legislature," says Panha.

With a general election scheduled for next year, and Hun Sen's continued rule in doubt, the government is not pleased with Panha's work. "Recently, we are very concerned. There are a lot of legal threat because of the government has law on NGOs. They ask us to stop us to not continue this kind of solidarity platform or observation room," says Panha.

Last month, opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested on charges of colluding with a foreign country against the Cambodian government and half of his party's assembly members are now in exile.

"In many countries, they do not believe that the international community's intervention will achieve anything in society, that it is only interference. But in Cambodian case, with the support of the international community, we gained some achievement, social achievement, an economic achievement. I appeal to the international community to continue to support and even intensify the engagement and support for us," says Panha.

The future of Cambodia's democracy may hinge on whether or not the international community responds to that call for engagement.