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Cambodia: EU draws criticism over 'inaction' against opposition crackdown

Since the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, PM Hun Sen's government has arrested hundreds of opposition activists. Analysts say Brussels has failed to exert pressure on the authoritarian regime.

Kem Sokha (R), former leader of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), speaks to the media in Phnom Penh

Opposition leader Kem Sokha faces 30 years in prison if found guilty

Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha returned to the courtroom on January 19 for a politically-motivated trial in which he is accused of treason.

Sokha, 68, was arrested in September 2017, just months before the forced dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country's only viable opposition party which he co-founded and served as president.

Hundreds of CNRP-aligned individuals and activists have been arrested, jailed, or harassed by authorities since 2017. Many more have fled abroad, joining the party's elected politicians who left for exile after being stripped of their positions.

According to Human Rights Watch's estimates, there are currently 68 CNRP-affiliated individuals in prison, while another 90 have been released on bail pending charges, like Sokha. Three have reportedly died in custody.

Several CNRP-linked individuals have also been killed since 2017, including Sin Khon, who was murdered in Phnom Penh last November. The same month, at least 126 CNRP-affiliated individuals were summoned for a series of "politically-motivated mass trials," Amnesty International stated in its 2021 report.

'Fabricated conspiracy theories'

"Severe physical assaults of individuals affiliated with the CNRP continued, with no one arrested or investigated for any of the attacks," the UK-based human rights watchdog added.

Several exiled, senior CNRP leaders — including "acting-president" Sam Rainsy and its vice presidents — were last year sentenced in absentia to more than 20 years in prison for allegedly conspiring to foment a "color revolution."

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The Supreme Court, which outlawed the CNRP in 2017, claimed the party was plotting a US-backed coup, which US Ambassador to Phnom Penh, W. Patrick Murphy, has called "fabricated conspiracy theories."

Sokha faces 30 years in prison if found guilty. He was released to house arrest before his bail conditions were relaxed in late 2019. His trial began in January 2020, around 28 months after his arrest, but was then delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There is absolutely no possibility of justice for Kem Sokha in Cambodia's highly politicized courts," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

Transparency International's latest Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Cambodia the 20th worst country in the world for official graft, just two places ahead of Iraq. All areas of the state, including the judiciary, are now controlled by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), which has been in power since 1979.

Ky Tech, the government lawyer leading the prosecution against Sokha, is a member of the ruling party's decision-making Central Committee.

Possibility of a political settlement

"I would expect delays [to the trial] because the pattern has been to draw it out and milk it for all it's worth," Sophal Ear, associate dean and associate professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, told DW.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan has repeatedly told local media in recent weeks that no politician can intervene in the trial proceedings, but he noted a political resolution could be found afterwards.

Ou Virak, president of the Phnom Penh-based Future Forum think tank, reckons the Phnom Penh Municipal Court could give Sokha a suspended sentence, sparing him a prison sentence even if he is convicted of treason.

Alternatively, he said, Prime Minister Hun Sen could arrange for Sokha to be given a royal pardon, which would also spare the opposition leader a prison term, but that would only come after "political negotiation" between Sokha and the Cambodian premier.

The end of opposition politics?

It is widely suspected that Hun Sen, one of the world's longest-ruling heads of government, wants to cajole Sokha into either resigning from politics or agreeing to lead a greatly defanged opposition party.

His goal, analysts told DW, is to cement a split between Sokha and Rainsy, who has been in exile in France since 2015.

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Sokha co-founded the CNRP in 2012 after merging his political party, the Human Rights Party, with Rainsy's eponymous group.

The opposition pair has a tempestuous relationship, but their public shows of unity made the CNRP an electoral possibility. It won just 4% points less than the CPP in the 2013 general election.

Sokha and Rainsy maintained their public solidarity after their party's ban in 2017 but a spat began in late November last year when Sokha bemoaned Rainsy for using his name. Sokha's daughters, who play a leading role in his faction of the banned party, also accused Rainsy of "racism" and "sexism."

However, analysts say there is no indication yet that Sokha is prepared to agree to Hun Sen's demands, which could lead to a protracted court trial.

After the CNRP was dissolved, the ruling CPP went on to win all 125 seats in the National Assembly in the following year's general election.

Despite controlling a near monopoly of political offices in the country, the ruling party's authority still isn't absolute. Hun Sen last month solidified plans to hand over power to his eldest son, the de facto military leader Hun Manet, who was named the ruling party's next prime minister candidate.

A dynastic handover is expected sometime between the next two general elections, in 2023 and 2028, and it would run much more smoothly if there is no real opposition threat to contend with.

'Inefficient' EU response

Cambodia also faced a considerable backlash from the West because of its democratic deterioration.

The United States last month ordered a review of Cambodia's place in its preferential GSP scheme over human rights and political conditions in the country. In August 2020, the EU removed around a fifth of Cambodia's trade privileges, re-imposing tariffs on exports, for similar reasons.

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Cambodia's economy contracted by around 3% in 2020 and only grew by 2.2% last year, compared with highs of around 7% during the 2010s. Any further trade sanctions by the US or the EU, its main export markets, would severely hamper economic recovery efforts.

Cindy Cao, associate researcher at the European Institute for Asian Studies, described the EU's response to the deteriorating situation in Cambodia since 2017 as "unethical and inefficient."

The bloc's "economic coercion did not have any of the positive impacts Brussels publicly declared to aim for," she told DW, noting that Sokha has not been released nor the CNRP reinstated.

On top of that, the EU trade sanctions have exacerbated economic difficulties in the garment industry, affecting vulnerable workers, especially during the COVID pandemic.

Peter Stano, an EU spokesperson, says Brussels has been "closely monitoring" the trial of Kem Sokha and the resumption of court proceedings. He didn't respond to questions about possibly removing even more of Cambodia's trade privileges, adding that "these preferences could be fully restored if there is a substantial improvement on the issues of concern."

Edited by: Shamil Shams