Since elections in 2013, civic space in Cambodia has become more repressive as respect for human rights continues to deteriorate. Recent legislation governing NGOs and trade unions compounds the situation by making it more difficult to register and operate a civil society organisation.read more
New legislative changes proposed in Cambodia could further restrict civic space in the lead up to elections. The justice system continues to be misused to criminalise activists and government critics.
As previously reported in the Civicus Monitor, the Cambodian authorities escalated its repression in 2017 by dissolving the main opposition party and arresting its leader Kem Sokha on charges of treason. It also intensified its misuse of the justice system to criminalise human rights and political activists and forced the closure of media outlets.
The situation has deteriorated further in 2018, in the lead up to this years’ elections, with new legal restrictions being proposed.
A draft lese majeste law banning insults of the king as well as constitutional amendments, that could restrict freedom of association and political participation, was forwarded to the National Assembly on 6th February 2018.
The proposed legislative changes were slammed by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) warning the adjustments would “inflict deep, long-lasting damage to Cambodia’s institutional framework”. Parliamentarians expressed particular concern over proposed changes to the Constitution’s Article 42, which would insert a requirement for political parties to “place the country and nation’s interests first,” as well as to Article 49, which would forbid individuals from “undermining the country’s interest.” The APHR went on to say that the proposal of a lèse majesté law banning insults to the King is “extremely worrying”.
The prosecution and conviction of human rights activists and government critics also persisted.
On 7th January, Cambodian environmental activists, Dem Kundy and Hun Vannak, were sentenced to a year of imprisonment and fines of one million Riel (250 USD). They had been detained since 12th September in Koh Kong province while taking photos of dredging operations along the Cambodian coast carried out by a firm linked to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. The activists' NGO, Mother Nature, formally disbanded days after the arrests, citing harassment and pressure on staff from Cambodian authorities.
On 18th January, charges were brought against three prominent civil society activists, which many believe to be politically motivated. The three were charged with “breach of trust” for allegedly misappropriating funds raised for slain political activist Kem Ley’s funeral, despite the fact that nobody in Ley’s family filed a complaint. Activist monk Buntenh, independent media advocate and founder of Cambodian Center for Independent Media, Pa Nguon Teang, and labour rights campaigner Moeun Tola have all been frequent critics of the government.
In response to the arrests, civil society organizations issued a statement saying:
"We call for the charges against three of Cambodia’s most prominent civil society leaders – Mr. Pa Nguon Teang, Venerable But Buntenh, and Mr. Moeun Tola – to be immediately dropped. These baseless charges are clearly a form of intimidation and harassment, aimed at further silencing Cambodian civil society and human rights defenders."
On 30th January, three Cambodian forest defenders - Thol Kna, Tern Soknai and Seng Vattana – were killed, allegedly by border security officials, after confronting illegal loggers and confiscating their chainsaws. Cambodian security forces are known to collaborate with illegal loggers who smuggle wood to neighbouring Vietnam. An investigation is reportedly being undertaken into the incident.
On 7th February 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction and 30 months' prison sentence against prominent land rights defender Tep Vanny (above) for her peaceful participation in a March 2013 protest in front of Prime Minister Hun Sen's house. In December 2017, the Supreme Court had also upheld the conviction of Tep Vanny and two other land rights activists – Kong Chantha and Bou Chhorvy – on charges of insulting and obstructing a public official. The convictions – under Articles 502 and 504 of the Criminal Code – related to a 2011 land protest outside Phnom Penh city hall.
Former opposition party activist, Sam Sokha, was forcibly deported from Thailand on 8th February. She had fled the country after being charged for insulting the ruling Cambodian People’s Party after posting a video in April 2017, of herself throwing a shoe against a billboard bearing photos of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin, saying, “These are the men who are destroying our nation.” Human Rights Watch has called for her immediate release and criticised her deportation by Thailand as a violation of international law.
Following the dissolution of the main opposition party, the US State Department issued a statement on 6th December 2017 announcing visa sanctions on individuals "responsible for undermining Cambodian democracy":
"In direct response to the Cambodian government’s series of anti-democratic actions, we announce the Secretary of State will restrict entry into the United States of those individuals involved in undermining democracy in Cambodia. …We call on the Cambodian government to reverse course by reinstating the political opposition, releasing Kem Sokha, and allowing civil society and media to resume their constitutionally protected activities. Such actions could lead to a lifting of these travel restrictions and increase the potential for Cambodia’s 2018 electoral process to regain legitimacy."
On 15th December 2017, the European Parliament passed a resolution to impose visa restrictions on Cambodian officials and freeze their assets due to their ongoing human rights concerns in the country. According to the resolution the human rights situation in Cambodia has "deteriorated, with an increasing number of arrests of political opposition members, human rights activists and civil society representatives being carried out in Cambodia."
The latest Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit released on 1st February 2018 ranked Cambodia 124th out of 167 countries, sliding 12 places downwards of its 2016 standing. It also dropped Cambodia from a “hybrid regime” to an “authoritarian” one.
Although constitutionally protected, subsidiary legislation restricts the right to freedom of association and undermines civil society operations in Cambodia. Organisations that work on land rights, women’s rights and advocacy face more serious restrictions and harassment by the government.
Although constitutionally protected, subsidiary legislation restricts the right to freedom of association and undermines civil society operations in Cambodia. Organisations that work on land rights, women’s rights and advocacy face more serious restrictions and harassment by the government. In 2015, the National Assembly, having failed to properly consult civil society, passed the restrictive Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO). LANGO imposes a mandatory registration process, onerous reporting obligations and broad and vague grounds for denial of registration and deregistration of organisations.
People in Cambodia must give five days’ notice for most protests and 12 hours’ notice for gatherings of less than 200 persons. Additionally, a protest can only be held in the hours between 6am and 6pm.
People in Cambodia must give five days’ notice for most protests and 12 hours’ notice for gatherings of less than 200 persons. Additionally, a protest can only be held in the hours between 6am and 6pm. In practice, the right to freedom of assembly in Cambodia is severely restricted and the police routinely respond to peaceful protests with excessive force and mass arrests of protestors. For example, in 2014, the police fired on garment workers during a protest for higher minimum wages, killing at least three people and injuring several others, leading to theprohibition of rallies and street marches in the capital. The arbitrary arrest of protesters is also common in Cambodia. In 2015, in the Koh Kong province alone, three activists from the NGO Mother Nature were arrested while working on a campaign to prevent alleged illegal sand dredging, and a community representative was arrested on charges related to his peaceful activism against a major dam project.
In Cambodia, journalists often face intimidation, attacks and harassment from the government, in particular journalists that cover opposition protests and land issues. Defamation legislation includes written criticism of public officials or institutions, and journalists face jail time for failure to pay large fines that result from conviction.
In Cambodia, journalists often face intimidation, attacks and harassment from the government, in particular journalists that cover opposition protests and land issues. Defamation legislation includes written criticism of public officials or institutions, and journalists face jail time for failure to pay large fines that result from conviction. In 2014, a British journalist was convicted of defamation and ordered to pay the equivalent of U.S. $2,000 in fines and U.S. $25,000 in compensation. Moreover, Internet users have being detained and criminally charged for comments made online. For example, an opposition senator was arrested on forgery and incitement charges for posting a video concerning Cambodia and Vietnam’s shared border.