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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Hope fading for Cambodia's fledgling democracy

Feb. 7, 2018

Cambodia will hold its first general election since 2013 in July.

Prime Minister Hun Sen's 33 years in power make him the longest ruling leader in Asia. And with political opposition on the ropes, chances of a free and fair election appear slim.

Battambang Province is a six-hour drive from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.

Last June, 31-year-old Sin Chanpeourozet was elected as a local representative for the Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, the country's largest opposition party.

She looks at a picture on phone.

"This was taken the day I became chairperson," she says. "So many people congratulated me."

The CNRP won seats in many local elections around the country on a platform of regime change. But Prime Minister Hun Sen responded with a severe crackdown.

Party leader Kem Sokha was arrested in September on charges of attempting to overthrow the government.

And in November, the Cambodian Supreme Court disbanded the party altogether. 118 leading members, including lawmakers, were banned from politics for five years. Many have been forced into exile.

"We've lost the party that represented our hopes," Chanpeourozet says. "I'm very sad."

After only four months in office, she was removed from her position. "I'm very upset that she isn’t our chairperson anymore," one of her supporters says.

"I hope she'll come back," another says. "She's a good person."

“In forcing our party to disband, the Hun Sen regime is ignoring public opinion," Chanpeourozet says. "The government is a threat to democracy."

"The upcoming election will be unfair because the CNRP can’t take part," she adds.

The US has expressed concern about the upcoming election. Washington has withheld financial support for it and demanded that the Hun Sen regime change course.

"The government of Cambodia should undo its dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party, release the imprisoned leader Kem Sohka," US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said at a press conference. "Not only does that set back Cambodia's democratic development, it unnecessarily damages Cambodia's relationship with the United States."

In December, the CNRP's Deputy Director-General of Public Affairs, Kem Monovithya, testified before the US House of Representatives to ask for support.

She's also Kem Sokha's daughter. She hasn't been able to speak with her father since his arrest.

"We have two things: we have the Cambodian people inside the country but as of right now, there is little they can do because of physical threats. So, another channel for us would be through the international community."

Cambodia has enjoyed stable economic growth since 2009, thanks in part to Chinese investment.

Leaders in Beijing are overlooking human rights violations in Cambodia while strengthening their ties with Phnom Penh. Experts say this explains why the Hun Sen regime is turning its back on the West.

"What makes them change is the influence the Chinese have there. The Chinese are providing so much investment, so much assistance," says Walter Lohman, the director of the Asia Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation. "So, he doesn't feel the same sort of pressure as he has in past years to appease the international community."

After appealing to the US and Europe, Kem Monovithya is now calling on Japan, another longtime provider of development aid, to withdraw support for the election.

"How can Japan support an election that's not fair?" Monovithya says. "The election will not reflect the real Cambodian people. Obviously, main opposition is dissolved now. So, if Japan communicates that Japan would not stand a flawed election, that will make our Cambodian government rethink its course."

The question now is whether the international community can persuade Hun Sen to allow a free and fair election. Twenty-five years after the end of civil war, democracy in Cambodia is at a crossroads.