Opening message expressing respect and gratitude to the organisers and participants.
Not an exaggeration.
Comparison: Suppose that in Australia – which implements the same parliamentary system as Cambodia, with two main competing political parties like in Cambodia – the government led by the Liberal Party suddenly and arbitrarily dissolves the Labour Party and arrests Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and puts him in jail, then organises a new election without any challenger to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Would this be acceptable in this country? No. It is not even conceivable.
In Cambodia now, the situation is exactly the one that you would not even imagine in Australia.
- In November 2017, there was the dissolution of the oppostion CNRP. Its 118 top leaders were banned from politics for five years. Their seats (55 at national level + 5000 at local level) were confiscated and redistributed among the ruling party and very small parties that got no seats at previous elections but are aligned with the ruling party.
- In September 2017, CNRP president Kem Sokha was arrested and sent to jail where he remains.
- New national elections are scheduled for July 2018 with a forgone conclusion: a landslide victory for Prime Minister Hun Sen who will face no real competition.
- This is a return to a one-party system as under the communist regime that prevailed during the Cold War, before the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements on Cambodia in 1991.
However, the Cambodian people alone cannot resuscitate democracy in their country. Cambodia is too small and too vulnerable a country to be able to determine its own fate as history has shown over the last centuries and particularly over the last decades.
When peace was restored and democracy established in 1991, it was the result of an international treaty – the historic Paris Agreements – initiated by Australia’s Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and signed under the auspices of the U.N. by 18 countries, including all the world and regional powers.
Another coordinated international effort is necessary to revive the democratic process enshrined in the Paris Agreements.
There are two steps and two possible scenarios that revolve around the national election scheduled for 29th July 2018, or more precisely around the nature of that election.
- First scenario: Under adequate international pressure, the Hun Sen government accepts to reverse its political repression and to organise acceptably free and fair elections that will be held in a little bit more than five months with the participation of a real and vibrant opposition. This implies the reinstatement of the CNRP, the release of all political prisoners starting with Kem Sokha, and the reestablishment of fundamental freedoms for all the Cambodian people. This scenario is politically the best one that can materialize with adequate international pressure.
- Second scenario: The Hun Sen government refuses to reverse its repression and remains adamant about holding an electoral farce in July 2018. However, messages from Phnom Penh, from now to July, must be analysed carefully: There is possibly a degree of bluff that may hide a moving position under international pressure. The government’s final decision will depend on its final assessment of the consequences of actually and definitively killing democracy and the Paris Agreements.
To avoid the second scenario, the international community of democratic nations that want to help Cambodia, must elaborate a common and consistent approach where the key word is legitimacy. A clear warning must now be issued to Hun Sen: Any government formed after, and on the basis of, an electoral farce as described in the second scenario, will be denied legitimacy.
Cambodia is too small a country – depending too heavily on international assistance, trade privileges, debt forgiveness, new loans, foreign direct investment and access to export markets in Western countries – to be willing to risk any form of international isolation associated with “delegitimisation.” This is clear even for a brutal leader like Hun Sen.
From a more personal perspective, legitimacy for the current Cambodian regime allows the powerful to abuse their power in the conduct of illegitimate but lucrative businesses often associated with the plunder of natural resources, which in turn consolidate their power and help ensure the survival of an anachronistic regime. But the blatant destruction of democracy by the regime should end its legitimacy and jeopardise Prime Minister Hun Sen family’s colossal business interests and fortune as recently exposed by Global Witness.
Therefore, only the prospect of “delegitimisation” can push Hun Sen to reverse his totalitarian drift and to show more respect for democratic rules and principles.
The Western democratic world -- which Australia belongs to, politically speaking -- is recognised as the bearer and defender of universal values such as democracy and human rights. Therefore, this Western democratic world is in the unique position to assess and question the legitimacy of unpopular or shady regimes worldwide. This ability to deny, confer or condition legitimacy is part of that “soft power” that the community of democratic nations must use to promote democracy with a might that can be greater than the power of money or the power of the gun.
The recent internationally condemned repression has isolated Hun Sen’s Cambodia from the rest of the world, except China which has seized the occasion to invest more and more heavily in my country. Hun Sen says he can face international isolation with massive and unconditional support from China. This situation is reminiscent of the one prevailing in Cambodia under Pol Pot forty years ago. Pol Pot with his killing fields was cut off from the rest of the world except China which massively and unconditionally supported him and the Khmer Rouge regime. Hun Sen’s present anti-Americanism – and his broader anti-Western stance – is reminiscent of the Pol Pot regime during the Cold War.
Hun Sen’s democratic opponents now are being accused of plotting with the CIA to topple the regime. Kem Sokha is now in jail and the CNRP itself has been dissolved on the basis of such an accusation. Hun Sen is doing the same thing as Pol Pot when it comes to causing misery and sufferings to the Cambodian people while unconditionally siding with China.
As Cambodians, we oppose such a policy, but the international community in general, and Australia in particular, should also oppose such a policy because the fact that Hun Sen – for the survival of his regime – blindly sides with China, has far-reaching consequences. The fact that China is securing more and more facilities in Cambodia, including military facilities, will strategically affect Japan, Vietnam, Australia and India. I think Australia should feel concerned because this evolution could disrupt the balance of power in the whole region.
Last but not least, regarding the future of democracy in our region, Cambodians would like to see Australia showing leadership when it comes to helping democracy prevail in Eastern Asia. We have authoritarian countries in the region but Australia should take the lead in the democratization of the whole region because Australia is a vibrant and functioning democracy, which is an example for weaker democracies in Eastern Asia. This mission to promote democracy will strengthen and deepen Australia’s commitment and involvement in the region.
Even though Australia is generally associated with the West, you are a regional power and we share the same values. In the bloc of East Asian authoritarian countries, Cambodia is where you should push hardest to help democracy prevail because, amongst communist or authoritarian countries in the region, it is the country where the democratic opposition is on the brink of reaching power through democratic institutions and mechanisms which you have helped to build and which must be restored.
Through many sacrifices, Cambodia’s democratic opposition has made tremendous progress in the last 10 years in terms of popular support and political maturity and we would win any democratic election that would take place in the near future.
The democratization of Cambodia would potentially mean a lot to communist countries such as Laos, Vietnam and eventually China. Cambodia is the weak point of the authoritarian bloc in Asia. There are real opportunities for democracy to prevail in Asia starting with Cambodia, from where we can reach many other countries, and then the whole region would benefit from a historic democratic change based on universal values and serving our common and legitimate interests.