Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Human Rights Watch: Cambodian Government’s Claims of Democracy Do Not Reflect Reality

Citizens vote at a polling station during the national election in Phnom Penh on July 23, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Citizens vote at a polling station during the national election in Phnom Penh on July 23, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Cambodia’s 2023 election year was marked by attacks against government critics and independent media, according to a 2024 global Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published Thursday.

“Cambodia’s self-characterization as a democratic government does not reflect the reality,” the country summary opens. “Cambodia is effectively a single-party state with fixed and controlled elections, a lack of independent media, ruling party interference and control of all state institutions, political control of the judiciary, and systematic harassment and targeting of critics in the political opposition and civil society.”

The over 700-page report by the international human rights organization documents the state of human rights in nearly 100 countries during 2023. Cambodia’s July national elections “could not even be considered an election” because the Candlelight Party was disqualified, HRW stated in a press release for the launch of the publication. 

“[In Asia] we certainly saw democratic backsliding. Democracy is under an alright assault in many places. We saw deeply flawed elections here in Southeast Asia,” said Elaine Pearson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, during a Friday press conference in Bangkok. “In Cambodia, Hun Sen blocked the main opposition party from even contesting its so-called election.”

Government spokesperson Pen Bona claimed that HRW was slandering Cambodia in an effort to destroy the country’s reputation.

“If Human Rights Watch was a professional organization on human rights, it would clearly see the benefits of the Cambodian People’s Party, which has liberated the country and rescued people’s lives from death,” he said.

Cambodia’s government has provided its citizens with “everything,” according to Bona, and the new government has laid out policies to promote better livelihoods and human rights. 

Included in the HRW publication is a description of human trafficking occurring in cyberscam centers in Cambodia, with the UN estimating that at least 100,000 people in Cambodia have been forced to carry out online scams. “Cyberscam human trafficking gangs continue to operate with impunity,” the HRW report states. 

Women’s rights and land rights defenders faced criminal charges last year, with a group of Koh Kong land activists arrested in June. A UN committee found that Cambodia violated the rights of a human rights defender and failed to protect her from forced eviction. 

Chhim Sithar, a leader with the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld, as well as other union members were jailed on incitement charges. Sithar and eight union members were found guilty in May and were each sentenced to one to two years in prison. 

NagaWorld strikers wore symbolic orange prison jumpsuits in front of NagaWorld’s casino as they called for the release of detained union leader Chhim Sithar on December 5, 2022. (CamboJA/ Sovann Sreypich)
NagaWorld strikers wore symbolic orange prison jumpsuits in front of NagaWorld’s casino as they called for the release of detained union leader Chhim Sithar on December 5, 2022. (CamboJA/ Sovann Sreypich)

CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan said that the HRW report does not reflect the reality in Cambodia, adding that the rights organization seems to have an agenda against the country’s government.

“If there was no democracy and no respect for human rights, Cambodian society would not have peace and political stability,” he said. “Whatever Human Rights Watch has reported [on Cambodia], the reality is there are no rebel groups, there is no suppression.”

Former Prime Minister Hun Sen gave an incendiary speech in January 2023 threatening to use legal action or “a stick” against his political opponents. The HRW report catalogs attacks against political opposition members, including physical assaults on opposition activist Phorn Phanna, government critic Ny Nak, and Nak’s wife Sok Synet. Just last week Nak was arrested on incitement and defamation charges and is now in Prey Sar prison on pre-trial detention.

Political opposition leader Kem Sokha was found guilty of treason and sentenced to 27 years in prison in March. A group of UN experts called the conviction “politically motivated,” and the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the immediate release of Sokha. An appeal hearing for Sokha is scheduled for January 30. 

Kem Sokha leaves his house to hear his verdict on March 3, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Kem Sokha leaves his house to hear his verdict on March 3, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

National Election Committee spokesperson Hang Puthea said the HRW report had an “ill-intentioned nature” and was inaccurate.

“People still trusted that the election was carried out freely and fairly, and there was overwhelming turnout in the elections,” he said.

The US State Department called the national elections “neither free nor fair” and a group of UN experts said restrictions on civic and political space “affected the credibility of the entire electoral process.”

Information Ministry spokesperson Tep Asnarith said the report was biased and intended to discredit the efforts and achievements of the government. 

“In Cambodia, journalists have been fully fulfilling their roles and their obligation actively across the country to cover news, producing and disseminating all forms of information,” he said.

The media sector has grown and developed under the leadership of the Cambodian government, Asnarith claimed.

“Especially in this seventh mandate, the government has committed to protecting rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press by promoting the media as an indispensable partner of the Royal Government for the further development of society, economy and democracy,” he said.

The government hampered independent media in the country in 2023, according to the HRW report, shutting down the independent outlet Voice of Democracy in February, as well as ordering internet service providers to block access to media sites of The Cambodia Daily, Radio Free Asia and Kamnotra. 

In a September letter, The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries demanded that CamboJA News “rectify breaches of journalistic ethics,” including by removing the minister’s name from an article. The letter stated that future “malicious intentions and defamatory speculations” would result in legal actions and possibly the same outcome faced by VOD.  

Former spokesperson for the Candlelight Party Kimsour Phearith, who is currently a prospective candidate in the upcoming Senate election for Khmer Will Party, agreed with the HRW report, stating that Cambodia had regressed in the areas of democracy and human rights.

“This is the real situation, as we have seen crackdowns, arrests, and intimidation,” he said. “I hope that with this constructive criticism, we [as a country] can look at ourselves in the mirror and change by opening up space for rights and freedoms.” 

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