Cambodia has been accused of ‘killing off democracy’ after the country’s supreme court dissolved the opposition party and outlawed over 100 politicians ahead of a general election next year.
Thursday's ruling to disband the Cambodia National Rescue Party, in a Southeast Asian country visited by about 159,000 Britons a year, was widely expected amid the worst crackdown on freedom and human rights in two decades.
The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a firebrand former Khmer Rouge fighter who has held office for 32 years, had already accused the CNRP of plotting a US-backed revolution and jailed the party’s leader Kem Sokha in September.
After a horrific genocide in the 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge under dictator Pol Pot killed 1-3 million, Cambodia has functioned nominally as a democracy since 1993. Analysts say the current repression reveals Hun Sen’s desire to cling to power after a surge in the CNRP’s popularity.
“This is the end of democracy in Cambodia. We have not done anything wrong. We have fought for democracy. They have killed the will of more than three million people in Cambodia,” said CNRP spokesman, Yim Sovann, referring to the party’s recent support in June’s local elections.
Deputy opposition leader Mu Sochua, 63, has been lobbying for international help since she was forced to flee her homeland in October, after being accused by Hun Sen of being an “urban terrorist.”
She described the supreme court's decision as "a blow to democracy" but said it would not be fatal.
"The democratic movement for change inside and outside Cambodia will be glued together stronger than ever," Ms Sochua said after the decision.
Ms Sochua met with British officials in London this week to shore up support for targeted sanctions on the regime. Britain is one of Cambodia’s most important trading partners, importing roughly $1 billion [£760m] worth of products in 2016.
In an interview she told The Telegraph the party was anxious to see more action from the international community, "especially the UK", and hoped Thursday's decision would be seen as "a red line being crossed".
"You can let peace die, democracy die in Cambodia or you can take action to be accountable to your own taxpayers," Ms Sochua said.
She added: “If the prime minister can go as far as dissolving the party that is the only competitor, I think Mr Hun Sen can do anything else, so the situation for democracy and for peace in Cambodia looks really bleak.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called for Japan and the EU to immediately suspend all financial and technical electoral assistance for the 2018 election unless the CNRP was reinstated and permitted to compete.
“The Supreme Court dissolution of the CNRP is the culmination of Hun Sen’s backdoor plan to ensure his victory in next year’s election,” Mr Robertson said.
Champa Patel, head of the Asia programme at think-tank Chatham House, pointed out that the presiding judge in the case was a high-ranking member of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and a close associate of the prime minister.
“The dissolution of the Cambodian opposition reflects how the courts in Cambodia have become tools serving government interests,” she said. “It is difficult to see how any proceedings can be seen as independent of vested interests.”
The atmosphere of intimidation in Cambodia had already sparked international alarm, with Sweden threatening to revise its relations with Phomn Penh, and US Senator Ted Cruz threatening to push for a travel ban on top officials.
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