Cambodian democracy has reached tipping point: The Nation

The headquarters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in Phnom Penh. The party's deputy leader Mu Sochua had fled after being warned that she was to be arrested for treason. PHOTO: AFP

In its editorial on October 10, the paper says the fleeing into exile of yet another Cambodian opposition leader raises questions about the country's future governance.

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The fleeing into exile of yet another opposition leader sent a strong signal that this fledgling democracy is falling prey to strongman Premier Hun Sen's growing insecurity.

Mu Sochua, deputy leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), told journalists in Bangkok last Friday that she fled after being warned she was about to be arrested on treason charges. She is not the first politician forced to escape persecution under Hun Sen's regime, nor will she be the last.

More than 20 opposition members have sought refuge abroad since party chief Kem Sokha was jailed in early September on charges of treason. Supporters of Hun Sen had earlier accused him of conspiring with the United States to topple the regime.

Almost two-dozen of the CNRP's 55 members of parliament have now fled the country, ahead of a general election due to take place next year in late July. In the meantime, the government of Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has filed a lawsuit seeking dissolution of the opposition CNRP.

Under the newly amended Law on Political Parties, the Supreme Court can dissolve the opposition if it finds that the CNRP associated with a convicted felon or conspired against the interests of the country.

The law was rewritten early this year, a few months before local elections in June. Billed as a litmus test for the government's popularity, the local vote saw the ruling CPP lose ground to the opposition, winning 3.5 million votes against the CNRP's 3 million.

The vote confirmed that momentum has tipped further towards the opposition party, a fact that no doubt set alarm bells ringing in Hun Sen's government.

In parliament the margin between government and opposition is already low, after a narrow victory in the 2013 election saw 68 CPP members take seats against 55 on the CNRP benches.

The CPP has retained its grip on national politics and administration since a coup against the royalist FUNCINPEC in 1997. Hun Sen has been in power even longer and could make a claim on the title of world's longest-serving prime minister, a post he first took in 1985.

The CPP gradually cemented its hold over Cambodian political life, transitioning from its communist roots and rebuilding a country ravaged by the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s.

It's no exaggeration to say that modern-day Cambodia owes its character to Hun Sen and the CPP. Citizens born after the Khmer Rouge era acknowledge the strongman and his party for bringing peace and a degree of prosperity in the wake of war and genocide.

Yet the new generation has the right to seek change, including new leaders and fresh ideas they feel will better safeguard their nation's future development and prosperity. Hun Sen has been in power for decades yet the price of stability has been a narrowing of democratic space and stalled progress. For Cambodia to move forward the national interest has to take priority over his own private wishes.

Cambodia's politics is a pluralist system designed to protect against the catastrophic return of one-party rule. Yet as things stand, the healthy functioning of a multi-party political party system and the alternatives it offers is being slowly squeezed to death by darker and older impulses.

The law and justice systems are supposed to set the boundaries for Cambodian politics. Amending the law might be necessary, but only to better ensure justice and fair play - never to single out any particular person or group.

Political parties should have the freedom to place their policies before the public at the coming general election, allowing the people of Cambodia free choice over who represents their interest and that of the nation and its future. Hun Sen and the CPP have the right to take part in that contest, but not to change its rules in their own favour.

Manipulating the law to oust your rivals from the field is behaviour that cannot be tolerated from any regime that wishes to call itself democratic.

The Nation is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 media entities.

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