A Race to Kill Democracy

Leaders in two Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines and Cambodia, have used a startlingly similar playbook to undermine the opposition and subvert democracy.

By Tom Villarin
MP, Philippines

The 30th ASEAN Summit wrapped up in Manila on Saturday, April 29. Leaders in attendance shared pleasantries, posed for photo-ops, and talked about a more “people-centered” regional grouping. But they failed to address the elephant in the room: democracy is in grave danger regionwide.

While all ASEAN countries face serious challenges in this regard, the Philippines and Cambodia have seen particularly dramatic backsliding in the past year. Although there are many differences between developments here in the Philippines and in Cambodia, which I recently visited last March as part of a mission to investigate human rights abuses and hear from different stakeholders, the two countries’ resemblance in their unrelenting attacks on fundamental freedoms is striking.

Indeed, leaders in both countries have used a startlingly similar playbook to undermine the opposition and subvert democracy.

Step one of this playbook: Take out the opposition; silence critical voices through harassment, arrests, and attacks.

In the Philippines, we have all borne witness to the persecution of former human rights commissioner and now Senator, Leila de Lima, one of the most vocal critics of President Duterte’s brutal war on drugs. She has suffered from persistent attacks by the President and his allies both within and outside government, which culminated in her arrest and detention on highly dubious drug-related charges.

In Cambodia, similar blows have been dealt to opposition voices at a faster and more violent pace. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) reported in March that in the past 3 years, at least 17 members of Cambodia’s bicameral legislature have faced judicial harassment and other attacks, widely believed to be politically motivated and pushed by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

One of those victims was Mu Sochua, who was gracious enough to join me and congressional colleagues at a press conference on the death penalty in Quezon City last February. She and 6 other opposition lawmakers were arrested in July 2014 for staging a protest in Phnom Penh and faced charges that could have landed them years in prison. Though she was released shortly thereafter following a political deal struck between the ruling party and the opposition, the charges were never officially dropped.

As other MPs in Cambodia have been targeted, arrested, and imprisoned in the years and months by a judiciary that is widely seen as beholden to the Prime Minister, the fact that these charges could technically be revived at any time remains a serious threat, undermining Mu Sochua and her colleagues’ ability to do their job as parliamentarians. The arbitrary nature of these cases, as well as the manner by which they have been (mis)handled and used as weapons to silence political opponents, is all too familiar in the Philippine context.

Physical attacks

Other MPs in Cambodia have even faced physical attacks, including two lawmakers who were savagely beaten outside the National Assembly in Phnom Penh by a group of pro-government thugs that included members of the Prime Minister’s own military bodyguard unit.

Step two: Bully and intimidate lawmakers, and mute the opposition’s voice in parliamentary debates.

Earlier this year, the Philippine House leadership oversaw the railroading of a bill restoring the death penalty, which, if signed into law would violate international agreements and all people’s inalienable right to life. Legislators endured arm-twisting, pressure, and outright threats from none other than the Speaker of the House, who has sought to appease the President’s whims come hell or high water.

Those of us in the minority, who have deliberately and consistently expressed our vehement opposition to the measure, found ourselves muted and muffled as the House leadership twisted parliamentary rules and manipulated the floor deliberations to ensure the bill’s passage. (READ: House on fire)

During debates on the bill, at least 25 lawmakers across party lines expressed their intent to interpellate, yet only seven were permitted to address the bill’s proponents on the floor. When the bill was finally put to a vote, members of the supermajority who voted against the bill based on their conscience, braving repeated threats from the Speaker, were stripped of their leadership positions as Committee Chairpersons and Deputy Speaker.

Meanwhile in Cambodia, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has made it a habit to ram through highly controversial bills with little or no time to debate, and often without the opposition even being present for the vote itself. Following a ratcheting up of rhetoric between the ruling party and opposition in 2015, then-Vice President of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Kem Sokha was removed from a position equivalent to a deputy speaker, upon a unilateral decision of the CPP. The move, which lacked any legal basis, was followed by the expulsion of another opposition lawmaker, then-CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who was targeted on the basis of alleged “defamation” against the powers-that-be.

Step three: Empower the government to legally crush the opposition.

The Cambodian Parliament took a dramatic step this past February when, acting on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s request, it voted to amend Cambodia’s Law on Political Parties. The deeply problematic amendments enable the government and the courts to suspend and dissolve political parties for violating a series of vaguely worded prohibitions, as well as if a member of the party is convicte of a crime.

With the power to charge and convict opponents on one hand through the use of the judiciary as a political tool, and the power to dissolve opposing parties based on kangaroo court convictions on the other, the ruling party can crush all forms dissent and remain in power unchallenged. With Cambodia’s June 4 commune elections on the horizon, these moves have only cemented fears that the country will slide into outright dictatorship.

Thankfully, we have not reached this point yet in the Philippines; our democratic system is quite a bit more robust than Cambodia’s has ever been. But the striking similarities in approach between Prime Minister Hun Sen and President Duterte suggest that Filipinos should be watching Cambodia a little more closely to see what might come next.

It seems that both countries are keen on competing for who can kill democracy first.

This article originally appeared in Rappler