Political violence threatens economic stability in Cambodia
The United Nations has called for a thorough and independent inquiry into recent instances of violence against political opposition leaders in Cambodia. As political tensions rise, political and social instability are likely to increase.
On October 26, 2015, two Cambodian opposition lawmakers were attacked and beaten outside Cambodia’s parliament. This was the first instance of violence to occur since June, when a truce was negotiated between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).
A faltering truce
The truce attempted to end political violence stemming from the 2013 election, when the CPP nearly lost control of parliament to the opposition. In the wake of the election, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged to overhaul the National Election Committee, and to allow a more open political environment. In exchange for these concessions, the opposition leader Sam Rainsy agreed to end his party’s boycott of parliament.
Despite this truce, political tensions have remained simmering under the surface.
The truce faltered in July of this year, when Cambodian authorities jailed eleven opposition activists on charges of ‘insurrection’. In August, the government charged an opposition senator with treason after he supposedly posted a diplomatic document relating to the Thai-Cambodia border dispute online.
Amid these increased tensions, Hun Sen warned that a victory by the opposition in elections scheduled for 2018 could lead to a resumption of civil war.
Violence outside the National Assembly
Monday’s attack is the latest in an increase of political tensions. The CNRP lawmakers, Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Sophea, were attacked outside the National Assembly, as they entered their vehicles.
According to witnesses, the men were dragged from their vehicles and beaten by protesters, who had gathered outside the Assembly in the hundreds to protest for the removal of Kem Sokha, deputy leader of the CNRP.
Sokha has been denounced by Hun Sen as an ‘extremist’ after Sokha claimed that the CNRP would win the next election in 2018. Protesters at the Assembly demanded Sokha’s resignation, accusing him of telling lies about the CPP to cause unrest.
The two lawmakers were taken to private medical clinics for treatment. The attack was said to involve 50 men, who covered their faces with scarves. Whilst the identities of the attackers are unknown, reports have since implicated the ruling CPP party in the violence.
Is the CPP to blame?
Some demonstrators have come forward, claiming they were asked to participate in the protests outside the National Assembly by the ruling government. Other witnesses have implicated the Prime Minister’s bodyguards and the Phnom Penh Municipal Police in the attack, who were said to be dressed in civilian clothes and participating in the demonstration.
The CPP has denied any involvement in the attacks. Hun Sen condemned the violence, stating, ‘Whoever committed this cheap act must be punished’. However, he also blamed his political rivals for stirring up tensions, claiming that the CNRP’s rallies may have influenced the demonstration.
The CNRP issued a statement stating, ‘This brutal act is a serious human rights violation and an abuse of lawmakers’ immunity…the CNRP appeals to the authorities to take immediate steps to investigate and arrest suspects’.
Mr Rainsy has since claimed that the attacks were carried out in retaliation for anti-Hun Sen demonstrations held in Paris, where the Prime Minister was on an official state visit.
Human rights activists and the United Nations have called for an independent, impartial, and thorough inquiry into the violence. A spokesperson for the high commissioner for human rights stated, ‘We are concerned about the worsening climate for opposition politicians and activists in Cambodia’.
The ousting of Kem Sokha
Events in Cambodia culminated on October 30, when Kem Sokha was ousted from his post as vice president of the National Assembly. The decision came following a parliamentary vote, where all 68 lawmakers of the CPP party voted to remove Sokha from his post. All 55 CNRP lawmakers boycotted the session.
According to the CNRP, the removal of Sokha’s post is in violation of the constitution. The Cambodian constitution only allows for the removal of the National Assembly vice chairman in the event of illness, death or resignation.
CPP lawmakers argued that they had supported Sokha’s ascension to the post, and therefore had the right to remove him. CPP lawmakers also claimed to have received more than 300,000 petitions from citizens requested he be removed from his post.
Possibilities for political, social and economic instability
With growing intolerance towards political dissenters and a deteriorating political climate, there is real possibility for political and social instability in Cambodia.
Instability has already had a negative impact on the country’s economy. According to the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom, Cambodia is ranked 23rd out of 42 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, and its overall score is lower than the regional average. This is in large part due to corruption, in addition to declines in business freedom and property rights.
According to the report, the Cambodian government must do more to strengthen the institutional environment, and to facilitate a positive business environment. The CPP government must therefore comply with United Nations and CNRP requests for an investigation into politically motivated violence. If it does not, social and economic stability in Cambodia will be compromised.
Laura Southgate is Lecturer in International Security at the Centre for International Security and Resilience, Cranfield University, located at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. She has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and an MA in International Relations and Security, and a BA in Law and Politics, from the University of Liverpool.