South Korean rights group the National Council of Churches (NCC) on Friday awarded its Asian Human Rights Peace Prize to the jailed president of Cambodia’s now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Kem Sokha, citing his devotion to democracy and human rights in the country.
In a ceremony in the South Korean city of Gwangju, where a crackdown on peaceful demonstrations against a military coup d’état left hundreds of civilians dead in May 1980, CNRP Vice President Mu Sochua and CNRP lawmaker Nhay Chamroeun accepted the award on behalf of Kem Sokha, who has been held in pre-trial detention since September on charges of “treason.”
The Asian Human Rights Peace Prize was inscribed with a quote by NCC chairman Pastor Kim Kwang-hun, who applauded the opposition chief “for your devotion [to] the persecuted Cambodian people to promote human rights and democracy.”
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November for its alleged role in Kem Sokha’s alleged plot to topple the government, amid a crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the country’s political opposition, NGOs and the independent media—widely seen as part of a bid to ensure his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) remains in power following a general election on July 29.
Several CNRP officials and activists have fled Cambodia since the party was banned and are currently living in self-imposed exile to avoid facing cases widely seen as politically motivated and tried in a court system beholden to the CPP.
Mu Sochu expressed gratitude for the award, claiming it on behalf of all Khmer citizens who stand up and fight for their democratic rights.
“Democracy doesn’t happen overnight—we must be patient and be willing to sacrifice our lives to fight against Hun Sen for our human rights and democracy,” she said.
“I appeal to all Khmer people to stand up for our rights. If we act scared and remain silent, the authoritarian government will continue to have the power to control us.”
Soeung Senkarina, an official with Cambodian rights group ADHOC, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the NCC’s award recognized Kem Sokha’s work to educate Cambodians about their rights, despite being targeted by the government.
“The NCC noted Kem Sokha’s activities in the past, including when he was arrested while he was the president of Cambodian Human Rights Centre (CHRC) [from 2002-2005],” he said.
“Afterwards, he founded his own party, named the Human Rights Party (HRP), before merging it with the Sam Rainsy Party to form the CNRP [in 2012]. And now, he has again been arrested by the government, which accuses him of being a traitor.”
Amid the prime minister’s crackdown on the political opposition, both the U.S. and EU have withdrawn donor support for Cambodia’s elections, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy in the country—including the dissolution of the CNRP and the arrest of Kem Sokha.
But Japan, which along with the EU had been the largest funder of Cambodia’s 2018 elections, has said it has no intention of pulling its electoral aid ahead of the July vote.
CNRP officials and members of the Cambodian diaspora plan to hold a demonstration in Seoul on Sunday calling for the international community to reject the outcome of next month’s election, which is seen as neither free nor fair without the inclusion of the CNRP.
Demonstrators across Europe on Friday held the latest in a series of recent protests appealing to the Japanese government to withdraw its funding and support of Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC)—the country’s top electoral body—which is widely seen as lacking independence and under the influence of the CPP.
Hun Sen threat
Also on Friday, Hun Sen demanded that those parties which have registered to participate in next month’s election refrain from criticizing his party, and instead focus on their own campaign platforms.
Speaking to more than 3,000 students at a graduation ceremony at Phnom Penh University, the prime minister warned that if smaller parties “want to have peace and to get rid of problems … do not attack the CPP.”
“Politicians should behave like businessmen—you should talk about your own products and not talk badly about other products,” he said.
“If you put down someone else’s products, it means you are insulting them, and they will have to stand up and fight back. Therefore, it’s better to talk nicely about your own political platform, and not to talk badly about others.”
Kan Savang, coordinator of election observers for the Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), told RFA that in a democracy, criticism of competing political platforms is the most effective method to win an election and obtain power without bloodshed.
“When parties in democratic countries compete in elections, they do not use troops or their incumbent power to silence others,” he said.
“They promote their own political platforms and put down others for political gain. That is completely normal.”
Independent analyst Lao Monghai said Hun Sen’s threats against competing parties were “nothing new,” noting that the prime minister has routinely lashed out against his adversaries ahead of Cambodia’s elections.
“We recognize that Hun Sen has led the country toward something akin to a Communist regime for a very long time, as he clearly does not understand the concept of a real multiparty democracy,” he said.
Of the parties approved to compete in the election, only the CPP and the royalist Funcinpec Party currently hold seats in parliament and ran in the last general election of 2013—although Funcinpec only obtained its seats after the CNRP was dissolved, and not through an election. The other parties are largely considered government-aligned or too insignificant to garner many votes.
Under recently approved amendments to Cambodia’s election laws, the government can dissolve any political party found to have made “false accusations.”