Ms. Monovithya Kem is a member of the Permanent Committee of Cambodia’s principal opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Within the Public Affairs Directorate, she oversees the departments of international relations and civil society engagement as well as the CNRP women’s wing. Monovithya’s father, opposition leader Kem Sokha has been detained as a political prisoner since his arrest in September 2017. On a visit to Australia, Monovithya Kem addressed The Sydney Institute on Wednesday 8 August 2018, and spoke of her serious concern at the lack of democratic process under the Hun Sen regime. The paper which follows is an edited transcript of Monovithya Kem’s talk.
CAMBODIA: AFTER THE ELECTION
I want to thank The Sydney Institute for putting this together at a very important time. I’m here today to talk to all of you, especially those in Australia, because even the facade of Cambodian democracy has been overtaken. Cambodia is taking a dangerous turn to complete darkness. How has that happened? I would like to give you a very brief update on what has happened since September 2017.
On September 2017, the leader of Cambodia’s opposition party, Kem Sokha who is my father, was arrested without a warrant. He is still in prison after more than 11 months in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison at the border of Cambodia and Vietnam. He’s been held illegally without a trial date on the charge of treason. In November 2017, the only viable main opposition in Cambodia, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), was banned and dissolved. As well, 118 of our officials have been banned from politics for five years. More than a dozen independent radio stations and also newspapers, including both my language and English language newspapers, have been dissolved. And the few that are left are operating under threats.
118 of our officials have been banned from politics for five years. More than a dozen independent radio stations and also newspapers, including both my language and English language newspapers, have been dissolved
Civil societies working on human rights, specifically on election related issues, have been working under threat in Cambodia. There have been numerous threats and intimidation. Since September, there’s absolutely no space for freedom of assembly, freedom of political participation or freedom of speech. People cannot gather more than several at a time to discuss politics without a local authority coming to question them and sometimes even arrest them or take them in for questioning at the police station. People cannot even comment on social media such as Facebook – something that played a major role in the change we saw in Cambodia in 2013. What has happened since September is unprecedented. It is the worst since the civil war.
What has happened since September is unprecedented. It is the worst since the civil war.
In 1997, there was a coup and physical violence. However, there was still some sort of political space left. There were some democratic elements with a free press and some opposition. But now every element of democracy has been dismantled. This is not just about the opposition, the CNRP or its leader or even the election. It’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than the election, it’s bigger than the main opposition party. It’s about the Hun Sen regime turning Cambodia into a one-party state.
This goes against the spirit of the Paris Peace Agreement that was signed in 1991. This is why I maintain that what happened is the worst since the civil war. After the civil war, the Paris Peace Accord stipulated that Cambodia would be a multi-party democracy. Until around 29 July 2018, there was a facade of multi-party democracy, even real multi-party democracy in 2013 to 2014. But the Hun Sen regime is no longer interested even in a facade. If you look at the 29 July 2018 election, it barely qualifies as an election, for many reasons.
Firstly, the only viable opposition party was not in the race, not on the ballot. Secondly, the national election committee was unconstitutional. The original national election committee included representation from the ruling party, the opposition party and from civil society. But the election body that oversaw the 29 July election was a new election body where all the representatives from the opposition parties had been removed. One of the members from civil society was still there but operating under threat. That alone, and the fact that there’s absolutely no freedom of press, no competition during the race and no legitimate election body means the 29 July election is not credible; it’s illegitimate.
That alone, and the fact that there’s absolutely no freedom of press, no competition during the race and no legitimate election body means the 29 July election is not credible; it’s illegitimate.
The result of the 29 July election is not credible. Any government formed from that election is illegitimate. This is why my colleagues and I are travelling abroad to shed light on Cambodia. We are calling on the international community, especially friends of Cambodia, to denounce the 2018 election and the government that’s going to be formed sometime later this month. It is not a government that is representative of the will of the Cambodian people. It’s not a government that’s formed from a real election. It was a complete circus. There were no credible international observers only some from China and Russia, countries that don’t hold credible elections themselves.
What can the world do? What can we all do? What can the international community do? What can the Cambodian people do and, in particular, what can the Australian government and Australia do in helping to restore Cambodia’s multi-party democracy?
The international community has a special obligation to Cambodia because of the Paris Peace Accord. In 1993, we were the only country that had an election organised by the United Nations. In that sense, Cambodia has a special relationship with the international community. Although it isn’t mandated how long the Paris Peace Accord agreement is valid for, the signatories of the Paris Peace Accord have an obligation to make sure that they fulfil the conditions placed on them – for example, assistance to Cambodia.
Although it isn’t mandated how long the Paris Peace Accord agreement is valid for, the signatories of the Paris Peace Accord have an obligation to make sure that they fulfil the conditions placed on them – for example, assistance to Cambodia.
With the Paris Peace Accord, Cambodia has received a lot of assistance to rebuild our nation from many friendly countries. Australia is one of the biggest donors to Cambodia. Australia played a big role in putting together the Peace Accord that ended our civil war. In that regard, the international community still has a role to play now that the spirit of the Paris Peace Accord has been violated by the Hun Sen regime.
We need key signatories to the Paris Peace Accord to come together again. In whatever form, maybe some sort of conference. I’m not suggesting a re-run of the conference that took place in 1991. But there has to be a multilateral initiative among the key signatories of the Paris Peace Accord, the countries that signed onto the Paris Peace Accord, to meet, discuss and review the Accord again and make recommendations now that the Hun Sen regime has completely disregarded the Accord.
Australia, being a key player in putting together the Accord, has that role to play. We are appealing to Australia, France and Indonesia to start talking, along with any pro-democracy country that’s interested in helping Cambodia to rebuild. That’s the first step. We hope Australia can initiate that as Australia did the Peace Accord in 1991.
We also have recommendations that could be effective in making the Hun Sen regime reconsider its actions. Number one is sanctions. The Hun Sen regime will not even blink without sanctions. But sanctions alone are not enough. There has to be concrete steps and Hun Sen has to feel the pain for him to consider reversing course. Each country has different leverage, and different tools that they can use. Targeted individual sanctions are one action many countries can effect. The United States, for example, has already acted and will expand their sanctions, particularly by placing visa bans on Cambodian officials that have been found to be violating human rights and democracy in Cambodia.
The United States, for example, has already acted and will expand their sanctions, particularly by placing visa bans on Cambodian officials that have been found to be violating human rights and democracy in Cambodia.
We are urging the Australian government to do the same. Place a visa ban, an asset freeze on Cambodian officials that have been violating human rights and democracy and found guilty of corruption in Cambodia. If Australia were to do that it would be most effective. Why? Sadly, your country is like a mafia hub of the ruling elites from Cambodia. That’s a fact. I’m not sure if you have seen ABC TV’s Four Corners report about the head of Cambodia’s tax money laundering. There are many illegal activities happening here in Australia. These are conducted by the Cambodian elite who come in and out. Some of them are not citizens of Australia, some are. But placing a visa ban and investigating the possibility of putting asset freeze on individuals can be very effective.
It’s not just about sending a political message. It’s your duty to protect your own country knowing these activities are going on. It would be the most effective thing, one of the most effective things, that the international community can do. Australia is the number one destination for the Cambodian ruling elite. They send their children here for school, to smuggle drugs, buy visas. They even threaten the lives and security of Cambodian Australians, of your own citizens. It’s something the Australian government needs to address.
Australia is the number one destination for the Cambodian ruling elite. They send their children here for school, to smuggle drugs, buy visas. They even threaten the lives and security of Cambodian Australians, of your own citizens.
Individual targeted sanctions would have a lot of impact. Why? Because the Cambodian elites are why Hun Sen stays in power. He operates on a patronage system. If people were facing difficulty, for example, a visa ban for example, or facing asset freezes because of his government’s actions, they would pressure him to do otherwise. They would be looking out for their own wellbeing rather than his. That does not hurt the Cambodian people at large.
Another role Australia can play is at the UN level. It’s very sad to not see Australia, being so close to Cambodia and a key player in the Paris Peace Accord, taking a leading role at the UN level. For example, at the last two Human Rights Council sessions, New Zealand was taking the lead. At the Human Rights Council, we have the sessions coming up in September. We hope there could be a strong resolution. But that will only happen if countries like Australia start to lead. It’s very important that we are appelaing to Australia. You are in this region, close to us, close to Cambodia. Australia is the closest, largest democratic country to Cambodia. Along with Japan. We need a voice from the region. And we haven’t really seen that yet, aside from New Zealand. We hope that Australia, along with your closest friend New Zealand and a friend like Japan, would lead an initiative at the UN level.
We need a voice from the region. And we haven’t really seen that yet, aside from New Zealand. We hope that Australia, along with your closest friend New Zealand and a friend like Japan, would lead an initiative at the UN level.
Another possibility is the UN General Assembly. I have been calling for Cambodia to be placed on the agenda since last December. Again, Cambodia can only be on the agenda if countries like Australia, like Japan advocate for that. The General Assembly meets this September, but even if we miss that there’s still other opportunities. Start preparing for that. It’s very little to ask for, just to have Cambodia on the agenda for discussion at the General Assembly.
Hun Sen is taking Cambodia back to the 1980s. Maybe, even a bit more dangerous. There is now a regional implication with the growing power of China. It’s not just about asking Australia to stand up for democratic values, for human rights values, it’s also for your own security interest, for the long-term stability and long-term interest of the region. It is about ensuring Cambodia does not fall under the colonisation or complete influence of one particular country. But that’s the direction Cambodia is heading to right now. Cambodian people want democracy and human rights – these are universal values. To see a very powerful country like China stepping in, a country that does not share our values, supporting a crack-down on the democratic and human rights values that the Cambodian people have been calling for since the 1991 Peace Accord is disturbing.
For that reason, I believe the international community, especially pro-democracy countries in the region, have an obligation to fulfil in terms of putting Cambodia back on track, back on a multi-party democracy system. I truly believe that a democratic Cambodia is in your interest. Obviously, it’s in the interest of the Cambodian people.
I truly believe that a democratic Cambodia is in your interest. Obviously, it’s in the interest of the Cambodian people.
To conclude. What will happen if we don’t do anything? What happens if nothing happens? If things continue to be the way it is now. I believe we would something very similar to the 1980s in Cambodia except it’s a lot worse. Today, Cambodians have been exposed to the world through social media, and travel more. We have migrant workers in South Korea, we have migrant workers in Thailand seeing how a democratic nation can operate and how citizens benefit from such a system. Without an opposition and freedom in Cambodia, the governing attitude would be similar to the 1980s. But people will also resist that. At present, people are in shock because of the cruel arrest of the opposition leader Kem Sokha. But if things continue this way in the next several years, people will begin to feel the pain. Cambodia could, very likely, face economic sanctions. That would hurt the Cambodian people.
But the Cambodian people know who to blame. It’s the people in power who are putting at risk many privileges that we have, and from Australia as well. Once these are cut, or revoked, the country will face chaos. That’s not good for anyone. It’s not good for the ruling elites either. Cambodia cannot survive on aid alone. We have had significant growth in the last 10-15 years because of trade. We see a lot of investment coming to Cambodia now, because of trade privileges that we received. That, in turn, invited a lot of investment from all over the world. Obviously, not only from the West but also from some other parts on the East. But, if we lose the trade privileges that we have been receiving in the last 10 to15 years, there would be an economic crisis which would turn into a social crisis and that would be terrible for everyone.
It’s the people in power who are putting at risk many privileges that we have, and from Australia as well. Once these are cut, or revoked, the country will face chaos. That’s not good for anyone.
The 29 July election has damaged our faith in change through democratic means. The Cambodian National Rescue Party have long called for change through elections. Kem Sokha himself has argued that only change which is long lasting can happen through free and fair elections. He has argued the negative consequences if change were to happen through violent means. We need to avoid that.
But, after 29 July, if you’re an average Cambodian, do you still believe that change can happen through elections? Of course not. It doesn’t take a genius to see that. So, if people want change, they would have to choose a different channel. And yes, now people are quiet because they are in fear, they are in shock because of the limited space that they have. But out of survival reasons in the next few years people will have to act. It’s our survival instinct. And then I think they would push for change through a different channel. That’s something that we all want to avoid. That’s why we are having this discussion today, for example. Because we want to avoid that. We want to put Cambodia back on track.
Out of survival reasons in the next few years people will have to act. It’s our survival instinct. And then I think they would push for change through a different channel.
I’m still optimistic. If pressure on the Hun Sen regime can be applied, I believe that this regime would reconsider its course. It won’t be perfect, but it would get Cambodia back on track.