As the July 28 Cambodian general election draws near, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party is launching an attack against its opposition, drawing pointed criticism by the United States against a country with a booming economy but a fraught and fragile democracy.
Last week, all 28 opposition lawmakers were dismissed from parliament and stripped of their salaries by a committee made up entirely of ruling party members—a move the US State Department said “starkly contradicts the spirit of a healthy democratic process.” US Senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, both prominent Republicans, have called for the cessation of American aid if the electoral environment does not improve.
After the opposition was dismissed, the Cambodian parliament passed a bill designed to criminalize the denial of atrocities committed by the previous Khmer Rouge regime, a law that critics claim is designed to be used against opposition members. The Khmer Rouge, an ultra-Maoist movement that incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen once served, presided over the deaths of 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979 before the genocide was halted by a Vietnamese invasion.
That context is crucial given that Kem Sokha, vice president of one of the opposition parties, has been accused of claiming that alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities at an infamous torture camp in Phnom Penh were staged by Vietnamese forces. He claims that his remarks were altered by the ruling party and has refused to apologize.
Cambodia has long been subject to repeated criticism from human rights groups, who have cited the “trumped-up imprisonment” of activists, including opposition leader Sam Rainsy. Unlike the one-party system in Vietnam, whose politicians like to boost credibility with an annual confidence vote, Cambodia has a semblance of a democratic system, albeit one that rewards the elite with luxury cars while most of its population lives on less than $1 a day. Rainsy has warned that Cambodia risks a violent outcome if the July election is flawed.