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Open Letter to the US Congress on the Cambodian Elections

08/06/2023

Open Letter to the US Congress on the Cambodian Elections

8 June 2023

To: The United States Congress

Your Honors,

We, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, are writing to express our grave concerns about the state of human rights and democracy in Cambodia. 

Despite hollow attempts to prove the contrary, Cambodia is continuing on its descent into authoritarianism, which is of great concern not only to the people of Cambodia and the region, but also to the United States. 

The situation related to human rights and democracy has drastically deteriorated in Cambodia in recent years, notably since Prime Minister Hun Sen used the country’s courts to dissolve the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2017. This occurred shortly after the CNRP had run Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) close in successive nationwide elections.

This year alone, Hun Sen has openly threatened opposition supporters with legal and physical violence, while his regime has shut down one of the country’s last remaining independent media outlets Voice of Democracy (VOD), threatened to shoot a former opposition leader with a rocket launcher for any attempt to step on Cambodian soil, and sentenced former CNRP leader Kem Sokha to 27 years of house arrest on trumped-up treason charges. This is on top of the forced defection of political prisoners, through means such as depriving those them of desperately needed medical care as well as the prior years of mass trials for both opposition party members and activists, invoking actions taken by the Khmer Rouge to silence, shut down, and even kill anyone acting as a dissident. 

Earlier this month, the Cambodian National Election Commission (NEC) rejected the registration of the main opposition Candlelight Party for the upcoming July elections on administrative grounds, stating that not having their initial notarized registration document from 1998 prohibited them from running. In addition to this not being a requirement in last years’ commune elections, the document in question disappeared in 2017 when authorities raided CNRP headquarters, thus preventing it from being provided. This manufactured bureaucratic obstacle, designed to block the Candlelight Party from competing in the elections by any means possible, was then affirmed on May 25th by Cambodia’s Constitutional Council, essentially making this an unopposed election for the CPP.

The government of Hun Sen appears determined to drive the final nail into the coffin of Cambodia’s democracy, which is guaranteed by the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991. Any elections held under the present circumstances cannot possibly be free and fair, nor should any government created from such elections be recognized as legitimate by the international community. 

People like Hun Sen are not impacted by words or morality, only action. Such as those recently taken by the United States against Bangladesh, to help ensure that there would be, “free, fair, and peaceful elections.” By restricting visas for Bangladeshis who undermine the democratic process in their upcoming election, the United States has proven that the support for democracy is real and that there will be consequences for those who oppose it. 

As the United States is willing to do so with Bangladesh, similar actions must be taken with Cambodia, not just on human rights grounds, but because the more authoritative it becomes, the likelier it is to work in concert with countries that are in opposition to United States’ interests. Such sanctions should be enacted against not merely the criminal regime itself, but against those who support it, allowing for such gross violations of human rights. At a minimum, this should include the armed forces who are being used by Hun Sen to intimidate and are ready to kill, the business tycoons that help support the regime financially through means such as illegal deforestation, and the judicial bodies, including both judges and election commissions, that allow the mass trials and this sham election to take place. 

While we and the international community appreciate your State Department’s recent comments of being “deeply troubled” by the anti-democratic actions of the Cambodian government and the decision to not send official observers, we implore you, members of Congress, to help the United States take stronger action. While critical words show Cambodia and the rest of the world how the United States feels about recent and upcoming events, unfortunately Cambodians and the rest of the region require more than words. Authoritarianism is a global threat that continues to grow, especially in Southeast Asia. Governments throughout the region have been taking unprecedented action against dissent and opposition, and Cambodia’s success in destroying the democratic process without international intervention will provide other countries with the blueprint to do so as well. 

We therefore urge the United States to pressure the Cambodian government to unconditionally release all political prisoners, halt the constant harassment and prosecution of political opponents, and allow for the will of the people to prevail through a free and fair electoral process. Thus creating an environment that allows for opposition parties to register for and compete in the upcoming elections.

If the Hun Sen regime persists in trying to hamstring the opposition, then the United States must refuse to accord legitimacy to July elections as it is becoming increasingly clear that Hun Sen is intent on using the elections as just another tool to consolidate his power. 

Unless the international community takes some form of action now, nothing will prevent Hun Sen from further solidifying his decades-long dictatorship by eliminating any semblance of a democratic system.

Your honors, as you yourselves have come to power in democratically-held elections with strong human rights protections, we are sure that you recognize and understand the importance of human rights and democracy to the prosperity and well-being of a nation. We have confidence in your commitment to these principles and hope that you will demonstrate that commitment by coming to the aid of the people of Cambodia. 

Yours sincerely,

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)

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ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) was founded in June 2013 with the objective of promoting democracy and human rights across Southeast Asia. Our founding members include many of the region's most progressive Members of Parliament (MPs), with a proven track record of human rights advocacy work.

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