PHNOM PENH - As Cambodia’s ruling party prepares to dissolve the main opposition party and pass legislation that will hand their formidable bloc of seats largely to a notoriously corrupt third party, the countries who spent billions building democracy here are reacting with little more than statements expressing concern.
Representatives of the EU, U.S. and Australia have all stressed the importance of competitive elections and urged the release of opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was jailed on treason charges, but declined to discuss concrete responses that critics have proposed, such as withdrawing aid or targeted sanctions.
Japan, the second biggest donor to Cambodia after China, did not respond to VOA's inquiries.
Democracy at risk
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday described the Paris Peace Accords, the document that brought about the United Nation’s democratizing mission in Cambodia in the early 1990s, as a “ghost.” The accords upheld multiparty elections as a key pillar in the process of transitioning the country to a democratic system.
Legislation has been introduced in parliament Thursday determining how the Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP's, seats will be transferred to parties which won no seats in the last election once it is dissolved, using what critics say are blatantly anti-democratic legislative amendments pushed through the National Assembly in the past year.
The royalist party, FUNCINPEC, will take the majority of those seats in what Prime Minister Hun Sen has called a, “heaven for political parties."
Carl Thayer, a politics professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy offers an alternate description: “illiberal democracy.”
“FUNCINPEC, or kept parties, will be allowed to exist and contest the elections next year and Hun Sen will win and then he can grab FUNCINPEC, as he did before, a seat in the coalition government just to show it is a multiparty democracy,” he told VOA.
Former co-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranarridh, who was convicted in 2007 for breach of trust after selling his party’s headquarters and was accused previously in multiple corruption scandals, currently heads FUNCINPEC.
Earlier this week, FUNCINPEC party spokesman Nheb Bun Chin told The Phnom Penh Post his party filed a complaint to have the CNRP dissolved because, he said, “they took all my supporters. They took my customers."
The predicament of how far attacks on human rights and democracy should be tolerated in order to preserve programs developing base conditions for long term socio-political gains is something major pro-democracy donors have grappled with in Cambodia for decades.
Now that the CNRP faces a severe setback, the question democratic donor countries must confront is whether there is anything left to salvage in return for providing the CPP legitimacy.
Thayer said he thought major western powers would still probably acquiesce to a political situation that was “going to be a farce” because “megaphone diplomacy” had been recognized as ineffective and risky.
“The landscape isn’t good and the situation in Cambodia is intensifying and it’s not the new normal. It’s worse than the new normal but that’s been underway for a very long time,” he said. “It gets back to having your other programs that are somewhat effective cut off, and do you want to jeopardize that kind of aid and assistance to make a political stand.”
In a series of emailed responses, the European Union stressed preferential access to its markets has contributed to an almost 35 percent drop in Cambodia’s extreme poverty rate over six years.
European Commission officials said they would step up dialogue with countries like Cambodia that benefit from a preferential tariffs system known as the Generalized System of Preferences, "where the EU can have most impact on the fight against human rights breaches," and
"continue to be ready to suspend GSP benefits in the most serious cases.”
U.S. ambassador William Heidt has highlighted the positive impacts of Washington’s aid contribution to initiatives to develop the economy, improve food security, and eradicate HIV/AIDS.
A spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which plans to give $68.3 million in in aid this financial year, pointed to the “substantive difference to the lives of Cambodian people,” programs on poverty reduction, health, small scale infrastructure and agriculture had made.
“We are specifically concerned by the arrest of Kem Sokha, leader of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, on 3 September 2017 and by reports that the opposition party may be dissolved,” the spokesperson said in an e-mail.