Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, center, greets his government officers during the country's 66th Independence Day from France…
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, center, greets his government officers during the country's 66th Independence Day from France, at the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh, Nov. 9, 2019.

PHNOM PENH - This past year, Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, consolidated his power, observers say, pointing to intimidation of the opposition and a minimal improvement of human rights following the European Union’s threat to withdraw the trade agreement Everything But Arms. The deal grants free access to the EU single market for all products, with the exception of arms and armaments.

“We're seeing the real Cambodia and the real Cambodian government, which is rights abusing, corrupt and non-democratic,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “The situation has just not improved in any way, shape, or form over the past year.”

Exiled acting opposition leader Sam Rainsy first announced earlier in 2019 that he was returning home, but then in August stated he would be back on November 9, Cambodia’s Independence Day. 

The government responded with a prompt crackdown on opposition activists, arresting scores on charges of “plotting against the state.”  

This was one of the major indicators that the ruling party consolidated its power during 2019, Robertson said.

"The biggest change is a lot more people arrested and political prisoners held in pre-trial detention and then sent to long prison terms for exercising their civil and political rights,” he said. “You've got Cambodia surging up to the level of almost 100 political prisoners during the course of 2019…in part because the government has tried to bend over backwards to suppress any display of support for the opposition (Cambodia National Rescue Party) CNRP.”

A spokesman for Hun Sen's Cabinet, or Council of Ministers, Phay Siphan, could not be reached for comment.

FILE - Self-exiled Cambodian opposition party founder Sam Rainsy speaks during an interview with Reuters at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Nov. 10, 2019. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

The government deployed thousands of troops on November 9 to prevent Sam Rainsy from returning, and had previously announced that airlines were barred from bringing opposition members into the country, albeit seemingly retracting that statement later. CNRP Vice President Mu Sochua was briefly detained in Kuala Lumpur.

Dozens of passports of opposition members who are abroad have been revoked.

The arrests, Robertson said, seemed to continue a trend from 2017 and 2018. The two years saw opposition leader Kem Sokha arrested, his party CNRP dissolved, 118 party members banned from politics, English language newspapers The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post closed and sold to an investor with ties to the government, respectively, and journalists arrested. During the 2018 parliamentary elections, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won all 125 seats.

Mu Sochua said her party had to learn from the failed return when planning their return for 2020.

“Nine November was a point that we could look at not exactly negatively – but in the long run, does it sustain democracy?…We have to be honest with ourselves about where Nine November could improve,” she told VOA in a phone interview. “We realize that this culture of waiting for the leader is not quite productive for democracy as a whole if we want to make democracy sustainable.”

Political analyst Markus Karbaum said that the CNRP had lost its influence when it was dissolved in 2017.

“The CNRP has become a zombie party, neither dead nor alive. While Sam Rainsy will continue to operate as a nuisance from abroad, he won’t be able to return to Cambodia as a free man as long as Hun Sen is in politics,”

Karbaum said, adding that party leader Kem Sokha could exercise influence by reaching an agreement with the government. “The CNRP will never ever return as it has been before its dissolution,” he said.

Astrid Norén-Nilsson, associate senior lecturer at the Center for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University in Sweden, echoed this assessment. “Everything looks headed for either a situation in which, at best for some among the opposition, a faction headed by Kem Sokha can operate, or, at worst, status quo is maintained and a lengthy trial against Kem Sokha will follow,” she said.

But Mu Sochua rejected those scenarios and said November 9 had shown that the CNRP still had strong grassroots support in the country – and that the opposition leaders would return to the country in 2020.

“You don’t wait for democracy to come to you crawling and knocking at your door, you have to knock at the door of democracy. Any measure that you can take, even the smallest sound you can make, you make,” she said.

Citing human rights concerns, the European Union formally launched the withdrawal procedure of its Everything But Arms Agreement in February.

Yet, although facing a threat of EBA withdrawal, the Hun-Sen-led government had only granted minimal concessions, like releasing some political prisoners, Robertson said.

“They've certainly consolidated power… It's all about trying to keep the opposition marginalized and out of the country and keeping them away from the people of Cambodia,” he said. “I would say would be really hard pressed to see where the EBA is actually contributed to positive outcomes. What we've seen from Hun Sen and his government is open defiance.”

Despite the court releasing 74 of the about 100 opposition activists on bail following a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen, the sentences still hung above their heads, he said.

FILE - Leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Kem Sokha shakes hands with French Ambassador to Cambodia Eva Nguyen Binhin at his home in Phnom Penh, Nov. 11, 2019.

On November 10, a day after Sam Rainsy’s announced return and a few days before the European Commission was due to submit its report on the situation in Cambodia to the Cambodian government, the court issued an order to release Kem Sokha from house arrest. He remains barred from any political activities and from going abroad.

Katrin Travouillon, researcher at the Australian National University who focuses on Cambodia in her work, said that while some EU demands had been met, such as the release of some political prisoners, long-term improvements were unlikely to occur.

“I am much more skeptical when it comes to the long-term effects of this process or its ability to effectively counter the ongoing decline in political freedoms,” she told VOA in an email. “For example, if you look at the government’s use of arbitrary arrests at the occasion of Kem Ley’s commemoration, or the recent crackdown on the opposition after Rainsy’s return announcement, it certainly didn’t appear as if the potential loss of the EBA was the first thing on the authorities’ mind.”

FILE - Tens of thousands of people attend a funeral procession to carry the body of Kem Ley, an anti-government figure and the head of a grassroots advocacy group, "Khmer for Khmer" who was shot dead on July 10, to his hometown, in Phnom Penh.

Travouillon was referring to Kem Ley, one of Cambodia's most prominent political commentators, who was assassinated in July of 2016. Kem Ley was gunned down just days after making comments about a critical report by London-based Global Witness about corruption linkages of Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling family. A suspect has been arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.

With Kem Sokha’s trial scheduled for January 15 and the European Union’s decision expected in February, major decisions are expected at the beginning of the new year.

Although Everything But Arms had only shown marginal effect so far, Robertson said, this could change if it were withdrawn.

“And I think that ultimately, what's going to happen is that only when you know the blood is on the floor – because of the partial or complete suspension of EBA benefits –  will the Cambodian government and Hun Sen realize that actually, they really do need to compromise if they want these things,” Robertson said.

“[But] the democratic so-called democratic landscape in Cambodia is not going to change until there's a new election in 2023.”