Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Cambodia’s Hun Sen Picks Off the Opposition, One by One, Ahead of Elections
September 15, 2016
Cambodia’s Hun Sen Picks Off the Opposition, One by One, Ahead of Elections
Conor Cronin, Research Associate, Southeast Asia Program, CSIS
Phnom Penh’s municipal court on September 9 convicted Cambodia’s deputy opposition leader. Kem Sokha. for refusing to appear in court for questioning over an affair with his hairdresser. Sokha, the acting head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was convicted in absentia because he has been holed up in the CNRP headquarters since May 2016, when police tried to storm the building to arrest him in the politically motivated case.
The sentence, just five months in jail and a $200 fine, is relatively light, but the impact is not—Sokha will be ineligible to run in Cambodia’s upcoming 2018 parliamentary elections. It is the latest step in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s no-holds-barred fight to secure the elections and his claim to legitimacy, and it could set off a downward spiral of protest and violent backlash.
Since nearly losing the 2013 parliamentary elections even after allegedly rigging the vote, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has grown increasingly fearful of opposition support. Protests over the election results, and larger frustration with the CPP that has dominated Cambodia for more than 30 years, saw backers of the CNRP and other opposition parties encamped in Phnom Penh for almost a year. The protests ended only when the CPP agreed to electoral reforms and a power-sharing arrangement that saw Sokha become first vice president in the National Assembly as part of a “culture of dialogue” intended to bring renewed cooperation to Cambodian politics.
The culture of dialogue was short-lived, if it ever truly existed. In short order, the CPP began to use the judiciary—deemed one of the most corrupt in the world by Transparency International—as a weapon against the CNRP, pursuing frivolous cases against lawmakers for defamation or “treasonous” Facebook posts questioning the legitimacy of the border with Vietnam. The lawmakers’ parliamentary immunity that should have protected them from arrest was ignored outright and stripped later by a Senate vote.
Sam Rainsy and Sokha, as president and vice president of the CNRP, have been frequent targets of Hun Sen’s ire. Rainsy, a long-time gadfly to the CPP, has been driven into self-imposed exile repeatedly over the last two decades by lawsuits from the ruling party. In December 2015, a court issued an arrest warrant for Rainsy in connection with a seven-year old defamation case. Rainsy was in South Korea at the time and has been unable to return for fear of imprisonment.
The campaign against Sokha has been even more brazen. A string of CPP-encouraged demonstrations that called for Sokha to be removed from his leadership post in the National Assembly—including one demonstration where a mob led by members of the prime minister’s bodyguard unit dragged two opposition lawmakers from their cars and savagely beat them—culminated in an assembly vote to strip Sokha of his position under legally questionable premises.
Removing Sokha from his post was not enough, however. Prosecutors brought prostitution charges against Sokha based on a recording of a conversation between him and his alleged mistress that anonymously surfaced on the woman’s Facebook page. When Sokha refused to come in for questioning, citing his parliamentary immunity, the court ruled his refusal an in flagrante delicto (meaning “caught in the act of committing an offense”) violation of the law—a loophole that would nullify his immunity.
Leading up to the trial, Hun Sen declared Sokha would go to prison “forever.” CNRP leaders called for a rally at their headquarters to prevent Sokha’s arrest. Authorities set up checkpoints around Phnom Penh to block supporters from entering the city, but ultimately tried him in absentia and convicted him in just an hour.
In the days following the conviction, CNRP leaders have said the relentless persecution may leave them no alternative but nationwide demonstrations. A return to the unrest of 2013-2014 would be anathema to Hun Sen. The prime minister is eager to paint the one-party rule of the CPP as legitimate, and public dissention undermines that. By extension, directly stealing the election would too easily discredit the government. By using the judiciary to “legally” clear the field ahead of elections, no vote-rigging would be necessary to defeat the ineligible opposition, allowing the CPP to claim a clean election.
Challenging the CPP’s narrative of legitimacy ensures the wrath of the prime minister. A July 7 report by watchdog group Global Witness detailed the extensive and illegal holdings of the Hun family across the private sector, a claim that the family denied vehemently across social media but without offering evidence to the contrary.
Political analyst Kem Ley highlighted Global Witness’s findings in a radio interview, only to be murdered two days later in broad daylight at a gas station. Authorities quickly arrested the killer, who gave a flimsy motivation for the murder, and many accused the government of silencing a prominent critic. Public outrage over the murder was palpable as hundreds of thousands jammed the streets to join his funeral procession.
The outpouring of grief for Kem Ley was a wake-up call to the CPP. Another such enormous demonstration with CNRP leaders at its head would upset the image of the CPP as popularly elected rulers. Hun Sen has forbidden pro-CNRP protests, warning that armed forces are prepared to crack down on any illegal demonstrations, and has bolstered his 3,000-strong private bodyguard corps.
In his travels while in exile, Rainsy has called on foreign governments to put pressure on the CPP. In June, the European Parliament threatened to withhold aid funding until human rights improved. The U.S. State Department’s foreign assistance budget for 2017 similarly restricts aid to Cambodia based on harassment and persecution of civil society. But financial threats are inconsequential against Cambodia in the face of generous assistance from China, which does not question the CPP’s human rights record. Cutting off aid funding from the west will make Cambodia more dependent on China and likely impact civil society groups, while not resolving the political turmoil or punishing the perpetrators.
Instead, pressure on the CPP to respect Cambodian democracy should challenge the legitimacy of the upcoming elections and the government that abuses them. The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee has been persistent in its criticism of the CPP, with representatives from both parties sponsoring a resolution that censures Hun Sen’s government.
State Department criticism—as demonstrated during Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski’s visit in July—should come more frequently and more clearly as the CPP continues its crackdown. And if elections are held without proper reform, further reputational damage—which might include visa restrictions against leaders of the CPP and their families—could impact the ruling party in ways China cannot offset.
Aung San Suu Kyi visits U.S. Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Washington on September 14 for a two-day visit, her first trip to the United States since becoming state counselor and foreign minister of Myanmar in April. She met with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, a number of cabinet officials, and U.S. business leaders. Following his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, Obama announced the United States will restore preferential trade tariffs for Myanmar’s exports under the Generalized System of Preferences and will soon lift remaining economic sanctions on Myanmar. The U.S. Senate on September 14 introduced the Burma Strategy Act of 2016, which authorizes U.S. economic assistance to Myanmar and an English-language training program for the Myanmar military, and creates a development fund to support private sector investment in Myanmar.
Former UN chief Kofi Annan visits Rakhine State. Former United Nations chief Kofi Annan visited Rakhine State on September 6-8 to meet with local stakeholders and visit refugee camps housing displaced Muslim Rohingya. Annan, who chairs the newly created Rakhine State Advisory Commission, was met with protests by local Buddhist nationalists who rejected the presence of foreigners on the commission. Annan also met with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Htin Kyaw, and Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing. Min Aung Hlaing told him any solutions to the communal conflict must have the approval of the Buddhist Rakhine community.
Aung San Suu Kyi urges participants to look to the future at peace conference. Myanmar’s Panglong Conference between government representatives and armed ethnic groups concluded on September 3, with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi calling on participants to look to the future instead of focusing on historical grievances. The four-day peace conference saw a total of 73 papers presented by participating groups on their visions for a federal union in Myanmar, constitutional reforms, and defense and security issues. The conference is expected to be convened every six months under the current government.
U.S., Laos establish comprehensive partnership. President Barack Obama and Lao president Bounnhang Vorachit on September 6 announced the upgrade of bilateral U.S.-Laos relations to a comprehensive partnership during Obama’s visit to Vientiane to attend the East Asia Summit, which Laos chairs this year. According to the joint declaration, the two countries agreed to increase high-level exchanges, establish a regular dialogue between their foreign ministries, expand cooperation on war legacy issues and disaster response, and conduct informal consultations on human rights issues. Obama also announced new U.S. assistance programs for Laos on education and on health and nutrition.
Obama announces $90 million effort to support unexploded ordnance clearance. President Barack Obama on September 6 announced the United States will provide $90 million to Laos over the next three years in an effort to help the country clear unexploded ordnance left from the Vietnam War. Obama said the United States has a “moral obligation” to help Laos recover from the secret bombing conducted by U.S. forces on the country from 1964 to 1973, which saw more than 270 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos. The Lao government agreed to increase efforts to help the United States recover the remains of U.S. servicemen believed to be missing in action in Laos during the war.
Obama scraps meeting with Duterte over insult. U.S. president Barack Obama on September 5 canceled a meeting with Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte after the latter insulted Obama while speaking to the press about U.S. criticism of his war on drugs, which has seen over 2,400 extrajudicial killings since June 30. Obama and Duterte were due to meet the next day on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Vientiane. Although Duterte’s office expressed regret following the cancellation, in two speeches later that week Duterte slammed the United States over its own human rights record during the occupation of the Philippines more than 100 years ago.
ISIS-linked extremists stage jailbreak, free 23 detainees. Around 50 heavily armed members of the Maute group, a Mindanao-based Islamist group that has reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, on August 27 raided a prison in the southern city of Marawi, freeing eight fellow radicals and 15 other inmates. The Maute prisoners had been arrested on August 22 at an army checkpoint after bombs and pistols were found in their van. No one was injured in the escape.
Explosion in Davao kills 14. A bomb on September 2 exploded at a night market in Davao City, killing 14 people and injuring more than 60. The explosion struck while Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte was visiting Davao, his home city. Forensics showed that the bomb resembled those built by terrorist organizations linked to Abu Sayyaf, an extremist group that Duterte has targeted in recent operations. The group denied direct involvement in the bombing. The chief of the Philippine National Police, Ronald dela Rosa, speculated the attack may be linked to “narco-terrorists” looking to disrupt Duterte’s crackdown on the drug trade.
Prime minister pays first visit to China. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on September 10 began a five-day visit to China, his first since taking office in April. Phuc met in Beijing with Premier Li Keqiang, President Xi Jinping, top legislator Zhang Dejiang, and chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Yu Zhengsheng. Xi told Phuc on September 13 that mutual interests between China and Vietnam “far outweigh the differences.” The two sides signed a number of agreements on capacity building and infrastructure support for Vietnam over the next five years, including an additional $250 million loan for a railway project in northern Vietnam.
Singapore sovereign wealth fund to buy stake in Vietcombank. Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC on August 29 agreed to buy a 7.7 percent stake in the Joint Stock Commercial Bank for Foreign Trade of Vietnam, or Vietcombank, Vietnam’s top lender by market capitalization. The deal, valued at around $400 million, allows GIC to acquire nearly 306 million new shares in Vietcombank and provide the bank with technical support. The purchase marks GIC’s first major direct investment in a commercial bank in Vietnam.
Indian prime minister Modi visits Vietnam, offers $500 million defense credit line. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi on September 3 agreed to extend a $500 million credit line to Vietnam to boost bilateral defense cooperation. Modi and his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, announced that Hanoi and New Delhi have upgraded their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership. The two inked 12 agreements on security, commercial, and developmental cooperation during Modi’s two-day visit to Hanoi, including a $100 million contract under which Delhi will supply Hanoi with four new patrol boats.
Budi Gunawan becomes intelligence chief. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on September 9 inaugurated former deputy police chief Commander General Budi Gunawan as director of the National Intelligence Agency. Budi pledged during his “fit-and-proper” hearing in the parliament to boost professionalization and integrity at the agency and develop its capacity to deal with external threats facing Indonesia. Jokowi last year dropped his nomination for Budi to become Indonesia’s police chief in response to a widespread backlash over Budi’s involvement in a case of bribery and corruption.
Indonesia, Philippines agree to boost maritime security cooperation. President Joko Widodo and his Philippine counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte, on September 9 signed an agreement aimed to strengthen bilateral cooperation on maritime security in the Sulu Sea in response to the growing threat posed by attacks by Abu Sayyaf militants on Indonesian fishing and merchant vessels. Duterte, who was on a visit to Jakarta, said he will allow Indonesia to conduct hot pursuits of Abu Sayyaf pirates who kidnap Indonesians into Philippine waters, where Indonesian authorities can “blast them off.”
Environmental investigators taken hostage in Riau Province. Seven government officials investigating slash-and-burn practices to clear land for palm oil plantations in Riau Province on September 2 were detained and threatened by more than 100 local residents allegedly hired by palm oil company PT Andika Permata Sawit Lestari. Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar on September 6 condemned the incident and said legal action would be taken against the company. The company denied engaging in illicit land-clearing activity and said the individuals who took the investigators hostage were local farmers.
Constitutional Commission issues recommendations for elected presidency. Singapore’s Constitutional Commission on September 7 released a report proposing major changes to the country’s elected presidency system. One recommendation suggested that candidates be the most senior executive of a company with at least $500 million in shareholders’ equity. Other recommendations included a mechanism to guarantee equal opportunity for candidates from all ethnicities to become president and the expansion of the high-level advisory Council of Presidential Advisers from 8 to 10 members. Prime minister Lee Hsien Loong earlier said Singapore will put in place provisions to ensure non-Chinese, minority ethnic groups have a fair shot at holding the office.
China and Singapore to hold joint naval drill. The Singapore Navy’s frigate RSS Steadfast on September 8 arrived in Shanghai to conduct naval drills with the CNS Jingzhou, a frigate of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. During the half-day exercise on September 11, both navies practiced using the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), a 2014 agreement among 21 Pacific countries to reduce the risk of incidents at sea, and performed communication and maneuvering drills. The drill followed China’s and ASEAN’s joint statement on September 7 adopting the CUES agreement for military vessels in the South China Sea.
Zika cases in Singapore rise to 329. The Ministry of Health and the National Environment Agency on September 11 reported that the number of Zika virus infections in Singapore had risen to 329. Since the first reported case of imported Zika infection on May 13, the Singapore government has introduced several measures to contain the virus, such as vector control operations, strict monitoring of Zika patients and their close contacts, and state subsidies for Zika virus testing.
Former prime minister Mahathir meets with former foe Anwar Ibrahim. Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad on September 5 met with his former deputy prime minister and political opponent, Anwar Ibrahim, as the latter launched a legal challenge to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s security laws. The two last met in September 1998, when Mahathir fired Anwar and had him jailed on corruption and sodomy charges. Ruling party officials suspected the meeting to be an effort to build a coalition to challenge Najib.
Malaysia launches world’s first end-to-end Islamic securities exchange platform. Malaysian exchange holding company Bursa Malaysia Bhd. on September 5 launched Bursa Malaysia-I, the world’s first end-to-end Islamic securities exchange platform. Second Finance Minister Johari Abdul Ghani said the launch could turn Malaysia into the global marketplace for Sharia-compliant listings and investments. Malaysia has been a leader for Islamic capital markets over the past 16 years, making up more than half of Islamic capital markets around the world.
King Bhumibol treated for infection. The Royal Palace on September 6 announced that King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s kidney infection has improved following the report of a severe infection the week before. The king is currently receiving intensive treatment for kidney failure at a hospital in Bangkok. King Bhumibol has been repeatedly hospitalized over the past two years for a variety of medical problems, and his deteriorating health has been a source of domestic tension in Thailand in recent years.
Alibaba Group wants to export Thai agricultural goods to China and ASEAN. Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha on September 6 met with Jack Ma, the chief executive officer of the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba Group, in Hangzhou. Prayuth requested Ma’s support in boosting Thai small and medium-sized enterprises. Ma proposed that Thailand use Alibaba’s logistics and e-commerce system to export agricultural goods to China and ASEAN, and said that Alibaba’s Alitrip system might help boost Chinese travels to Thailand.
Grenade explosion wounds three in Phnom Penh. A grenade on September 6 exploded in Phnom Penh, injuring four people and damaging four vehicles. CCTV footage showed the grenade being hurled onto the road from a passing motorbike before it detonated under a passing car. Investigating officials have not identified the suspects. A statement released the next day by the Cambodian Interior Ministry denounced the incident as an attempt to mislead the domestic and international public about Cambodia’s security.
Court sentences Kem Sokha to five months in prison after conviction. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on September 9 sentenced Kem Sokha, acting chief of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), to five months in prison after convicting him of refusing a court summons related to prostitution charges against him that are widely deemed political. Sokha was tried in absentia because he has been hiding in the CNRP headquarters since May. The conviction, which renders Sokha ineligible to run in the 2018 general election, has been decried by the CNRP as a blatant attempt to eliminate any opposition to the ruling party.
South China Sea
Philippine president says joint patrols with U.S. will end. Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte on September 13 said during a speech to Philippine military officers that he no longer wants the Philippines to conduct joint patrols with the United States in the South China Sea, which the two countries had begun doing in April. Duterte also said the Philippines should only patrol the 12-nautical-mile territorial waters from its coast, instead of the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, because he does not want the Philippines “to be involved in a hostile act.”
Japan pledges two additional vessels, five surveillance aircraft to Manila. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe on September 6 agreed to supply Manila with two additional patrol ships and five surveillance aircraft after meeting Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte in Vientiane. Abe and Duterte also vowed cooperation in seeking a peaceful solution to the ongoing South China Sea dispute. Earlier, Tokyo had pledged 10 patrol ships to Manila to strengthen the latter’s defense capacity. Japan and the Philippines are locked in disputes with Beijing over the East and the South China Seas, respectively.
ASEAN, China agree to implement CUES in South China Sea, urge self-restraint. China and members of ASEAN on September 7 issued a joint statement vowing to apply the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, a 2014 maritime agreement among 21 Pacific countries to reduce the risk of maritime incidents, to military vessels in the South China Sea. Released after the ASEAN-China Summit in Vientiane, the statement also reaffirmed the parties’ commitment to resolving the South China Sea dispute based on international norms and self-restraint.
Regional leaders attend ASEAN Summit in Vientiane. Heads of state from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from September 6 to 8 attended the 2016 ASEAN Summit, held in Vientiane under Laos’s chairmanship. The summit featured a review of the ASEAN Community Blueprints 2025—a set of documents outlining ASEAN’s guiding principles—and the adoption of several documents and initiatives to improve people-to-people ties. The summit ended with Laos passing the 2017 chairmanship of ASEAN to the Philippines.
Developing China: The Remarkable Impact of Foreign Direct Investment. The CSIS Scholl Chair in International Business and CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies on September 27 will host a book launch for Developing China: The Remarkable Impact of Foreign Direct Investment, by Hong Kong University professor Michael Enright. Enright will present the key themes of his research, followed by a panel discussion. The event will take place from 3:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., 1616 Rhode Island Ave, NW. Click here to RSVP.
The Modern Origins of China’s South China Sea Claim. The CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and CSIS Southeast Asia Program on September 22 will hold a talk with Bill Hayton titled “The Modern Origins of China’s South China Sea Claim.” Hayton, an associate fellow at Chatham House and journalist with the BBC, will discuss China’s claims on the South China Sea and provide evidence that traces those claims to only the early twentieth century. The event will take place from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., 1616 Rhode Island Avenue, NW. Click here to RSVP.