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Cambodian PM follows in his father’s footsteps

Further jail terms for dissidents as premier's father Hun Sen forms a coalition
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet (L) speaks with a bodyguard as he attends a parliamentary meeting at the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh on Aug 22, 2023.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet (L) speaks with a bodyguard as he attends a parliamentary meeting at the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh on Aug 22, 2023. (Photo: AFP)

Published: October 30, 2023 04:30 AM GMT
Updated: October 30, 2023 04:32 AM GMT

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet has held his post for just over two months and worked hard in attracting foreign investment but has shown no sign of diverging from the hardline policies of his father with the courts handing down further jail terms to opposition politicians.

Convictions and lengthy sentences have been routinely meted out against political dissidents since the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was outlawed by the courts six years ago. A broader crackdown followed and more convictions have been handed down in recent weeks.

Twelve opposition activists were found guilty by Judge Li Sokha in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court of incitement and conspiracy to commit treason, then sentenced to between five and eight years on Oct. 24 following a series of online statements.

The comments, made on Facebook, suggested Cambodians should consider suspending loan repayments during the Covid-19 pandemic and openly discussed high-ranking Cambodian officials who acquired second citizenships in Cyprus, a contentious issue here.

Among the convicted were four former CNRP politicians living in exile; Sam Rainsy, Mu Sochau, Eng Chhai Eang, and Ho Vann. Each were sentenced to eight years imprisonment and banned from holding public office for five-years. Warrants have been issued for their arrest.

Charles Santiago, Co-Chair for ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. said the sentences were a continuation of the repressive policies of former prime minister Hun Sen who handed power to his son Hun Manet in August.

“The charges brought against these opposition members are patently absurd and do not bear scrutiny. These clearly politically-motivated prosecutions reveal a government that is determined to stamp out even the mildest of critics,” Santiago said.

Senior opposition figures like Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua already face decades behind bars if they return to Cambodia after convictions for a range of charges related to alleged plots to overthrow the government were registered in absentia.

The crackdown and the disqualification of the Candlelight Party — which emerged out of the remnants of the CNRP — enabled the long-ruling Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP) to win 120 of the 125 seats contested in the National Assembly at elections in July.

On Oct. 18, Candlelight vice president Thach Setha was jailed for three years for incitement to commit a felony after he criticized the Cambodian government’s policy on Vietnam. That followed an 18-month sentence for issuing bad checks.

“Hun Manet has attempted to portray himself as a new start for Cambodia. These most recent sentences against members of the opposition for making comments on social media prove that his regime is just as draconian and anti-democratic as his father’s was,” Santiago said.

Human rights activists say about 60 political prisoners are currently in Cambodian jails and the government’s relentless pursuit of CNRP figures has damaged its reputation in the eyes of Western nations and potential foreign investors, which this country desperately needs.

Last week, the European Union backed away from any suggestion that it would fully reinstate its preferential trade scheme, Everything But Arms (EBA), partially withdrawn from Cambodia in 2020 due to human rights violations.

Recently-appointed EU ambassador to Cambodia, Igor Driesmans, told a press conference there has not been any progress since then and that the EU had fresh concerns about political restrictions.

“I don’t think there is any further discussion on the withdrawal of any part of EBA.... However, I think we will continue to discuss with the authorities, but I do not see any change, especially now.” Driesmans said.

A change in leadership with Hun Manet — a West Point Graduate with a PhD from Bristol University — taking over as prime minister had raised hopes of a more conciliatory approach between a beleaguered opposition and the long-ruling Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP).

However, his father remains president of the CPP and last week negotiated an eight-point agreement with 27 other political parties to form a coalition for closer cooperation and mutual support.

None of those political parties hold seats in the National Assembly.

“This agreement is not intended to control any party, but is a partnership with equal rights. No party is subordinate to any other coalition member,” Hun Sen said upon signing. “I can say that all parties will remain autonomous.”

The royalist Funcinpec party, which has the remaining five seats in the National Assembly, and the Candlelight Party were not on that list.

Gordon Conochie, author of "A Tiger Rules the Mountain: Cambodia’s Pursuit of Democracy," said Hun Sen has proven himself a wily and intelligent politician by consolidating his power base and it would be wrong to expect much difference with Hun Manet as prime minister.

“He is a product of his county, his culture and his father. He is not going to able to just throw all of that off and suddenly become a Western educated democrat,” he said of the eldest son.

“That’s not how it works and I think it’s cultural arrogance that just because he got to university in America and Britain automatically he’ll become one of us.”

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