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Observers see 'democratic crisis' in Cambodia ahead of general elections

The empty headquarters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party with a faded painting of the party symbol on the wall is seen in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on April 7, 2018. (Mainichi)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- With the dissolution of the largest opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) heading into general elections, Western powers and those affiliated with the party are describing the situation here as a "democratic crisis."

Prime Minister Hun Sen has retained power over the government of Cambodia for over 30 years, and with no viable opposition, has no worries ahead of July elections for Cambodia's lower house of parliament, the National Assembly. Still, looking upon the country's tumultuous history, many are intent on avoiding political conflicts that could return the nation to chaos.

On an unusually cool morning on April 8 in Phnom Penh, Prime Minister Hun Sen made a visit to Diamond Island, a new development district located on an island in the Mekong River. At a theater there, he met with some 4,600 regional factory laborers.

"I will work to understand the difficulties faced by laborers and search for solutions," Hun Sen wrote on his official Facebook page, and in his speech that day he touched upon subsidies for commuting and childbirth costs among other support systems. The prime minister holds these events weekly, planning to win support among the country's workers as a practical election campaign tactic.

But just a few kilometers away along a national expressway, the gate of the building housing the headquarters of the opposition CNRP is shut tightly and all is quiet. Party members and their supporters watch the activities of the prime minister grimly.

"Cambodia is full of fake democracy," laments a 34-year-old former member of parliament who used to represent an administrative district on the outskirts of Phnom Penh known as the "commune." He joined the CNRP during the last National Assembly election in 2013, and was elected to office in a regional election last year.

The CNRP held 55 of the 123 seats in Cambodia's lower house, while the ruling Cambodian People's Party held 68. However, after the CNRP dissolved in November 2017, the seats held by the party were redistributed. The same happened in regional assemblies, and the man had no choice but to return to his previous job as an engineer.

A total of 118 members of the CNRP, including legislators and senior officials, were barred from political activities for a period of five years, and many ended up fleeing the country. Regional lawmakers were exempt from the prohibition, but the former lawmaker said, "They keep a watch on when I enter and leave my house, and I cannot speak freely in my neighborhood." He agreed to speak with the Mainichi Shimbun on condition of anonymity, on a deserted cafe terrace in a central area of the district.

Cambodia has a population of some 16 million people, but those aged 30 or under make up some 70 percent of that number. "Our party supporters are mainly young people aged 25 or under. The prime minister is afraid of the younger generation rising up against him," the man explained.

Former Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy speaks during an interview in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on April 12, 2018. (Mainichi)

On a visit to Japan, former leader of the CNRP Sam Rainsy sat down with the Mainichi Shimbun on April 12, discussing crackdowns on opposition members by Hun Sen's administration and the ban on him participating in the July elections. "It's Japan, which has maintained a long relationship of support (of Cambodia) that has the power to convince the government to hold free and fair elections," he stressed.

Rainsy formed the CNRP in 2012, and was the party president up until February 2017. However, the ruling people's party called for the dissolution of the party on charges of plotting to overthrow Hun Sen. Rainsy and the majority of CNRP members fled the country to escape crackdowns.

Still, Rainsy believes there is a possibility that the government may change its mind and let the CNRP participate in the 2018 lower house elections. Explaining that the deadline for party candidacy is in mid-May, Rainsy said, "We are requesting the realization of an election between two major parties -- the Cambodian People's Party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party, but if that doesn't happen, we will request the election results be thrown out through an intermediary."

In addition, United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith told reporters in March , "I did discuss the need to have full rights of political participation in Cambodia, and for the views of the people who want the results of the elections to be respected and recognized," referring to a meeting with the Cambodian government's human rights committee head Keo Remy about the July elections.

However, Cambodia's past is filled with coups d'etat and civil wars, including massacres and forced labor by the Khmer Rouge under the Pol Pot administration (1975-1979), claiming an estimated 1.7 million lives. While carrying his discontent with the current political condition, one 55-year-old public official prefers things the way they are to past chaos. "Cambodia needs stability and peace," he said. "If we don't have that, we'll have to start from zero all over again."

(Japanese original by Shinichi Nishiwaki, Asian General Bureau, and Kana Takagi, Foreign News Department)

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