University of California, Los Angeles

Is it the End of Democracy for Cambodia? by Abigail Valdez @ University of California Los Angeles

On February 2017, the Cambodian People’s Party amended the Law on Political Parties to automatically dissolve any political party whose leader has criminal convictions [1]. The passing of this ruling has now led Prime Minister Hun Sen to have no main opposition in the upcoming Primary elections in July 2018.

The Cambodian National Rescue party was set up in 2012 when Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha joined their separate parties. The joint party believed in the strengthening of freedom and human rights and encouraged Cambodians to protest and stand up for their freedom [2]. This new party became the CPP’s sole challenger after the 2013 election in which they won 55 seats in Parliament out of 184.

Sam Rainsy, a co-founder and previous leader of the CNRP, was charged with defamation and incitement after having accused Hun Sen’s government of having assassinated political activist Kem Ley [3]. In 2016 Rainsy was forced to go into exile to avoid imprisonment therefore forcing him to leave his position as leader of the CNRP.

Kem Sokha was forced to step up as the new leader of the CNRP. With more than three million people who voted for this party their ambition and aim were evident. Sokha led the Cambodian National Rescue Party until September 3, 2017, when he was charged with treason and imprisoned. The judge of the trial that led to Sokha’s imprisonment was led by Dith Munty who had been a member of Hun’s ruling party since 1989 [3]. Dith Munty was supposed to be the “fair” justice in this trial but the favoritism was apparent. How is a loyal CPP member going to be an impartial and fair executor of the law when it isn’t in his favor to rule Sokha innocent? The answer is: he wasn’t. Not only was Sokha given 30 years of prison, all CNRP office holders will lose their positions and 118 senior party officials were banned from participating in politics for the next five years.

Justice Dith Munty’s ruling completely dissolved the CNRP and prevented any further opposition from their members. With the dissolving of the CNRP, Hun Sen eliminated all the opposition to his now most likely victory.

With only the CPP available, millions of Cambodians who had voted for the CNRP are left without representation. People are afraid of speaking up and protesting because it is well known throughout the country that Prime Minister Hun Sen uses forceful and legal measures to neutralize any challenges to his rule.

Previous examples of his authoritarian rule include the closure of the Cambodian Daily, a local newspaper. Prime Minister Hun Sen disguised the shut down of the prestige newspaper as a case of tax debt. The newspaper was said to owe the government $6.3 million in years of back taxes. The newspaper was known for publishing risky stories about corruption, environmental issues, and land rights [4]. The last issue they published before being shut down was a cover story with the headline “Descent Into Outright Dictatorship” with a full page picture of Ken Sokha being arrested.

The backsliding of the Cambodian democracy can be seen through the deterioration of the quality of their democratic governance. Democratic procedures should embody three core principles: (1) Uncertainty, that the winners of elections cannot be known for certain prior to elections [5]. This core principle has been failed by the Cambodian government due to their dissolution of the CNRP therefore leaving the  CPP with no major opposition. (2) Governments have a limited duration [6]. This principle has also been failed by the Cambodian government. Most democracies have limited terms for their elected officials and a set amount of terms someone can run for office but in Cambodia, Hun Sen has been the Prime Minister for three decades. (3) Constraint, such that constitutional limits are imposed on the obligations and sanctions a government can impose on citizens [7]. This principle also failed when Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government started closing down radio stations, newspapers and other sources of media. As a result of the closure of some of Cambodia’s  media their vertical accountability lowered. The fourth estate, the news, media, and press, is an unrecognized major part of democracy that indirectly influences politics and now Cambodia has also gained control over this. Hun Sen’s “democratic” rule is closer to an authoritarian rule than to an actual democracy.

The people of Cambodia are afraid of speaking up. Their freedom of press has been tampered with by the government, the one force that was responsible for its protection. Many radio stations and other media outlets have also been shut down with the purpose of preventing any further anti patriotic acts. The fourth estate of the country is no longer credible.

The dissolution of the party and the arrest of Sokha has led Cambodia to be condemned by Western Aid donors who believe the upcoming election is no longer credible. The United States, being one of their main donors, ended all of their donations to the Cambodian election after the dissolving of the CNRP. Prime Minister Hun Sen claims that Cambodia has no need for aid from the United States but this is to be seen.



[1] Dara, Mech, and Erin Handley. “Breaking: Interior Ministry Files Complaint to Dissolve CNRP.” Phnom Penh Post, Post Media Co Ltd 888 Building H, 8th Floor Phnom Penh Center Corner Sothearos & Sihanouk Blvd Sangkat Tonle Bassac120101 Phnom Penh Cambodia, 6 Oct. 2017,

[2] Kennedy, From Victoria, and Erika Pineros. “Opposition Rejects Cambodia Election Results, Calls for Investigation.” CNN, Cable News Network, 29 July 2013,

[3] Dara, Mech, and Daphne Chen. “Analysis: Judge Who Will Decide the Fate of the CNRP Is a Trusted Member of the CPP.” Phnom Penh Post, Post Media Co Ltd 888 Building H, 8th Floor Phnom Penh Center Corner Sothearos & Sihanouk Blvd Sangkat Tonle Bassac120101 Phnom Penh Cambodia, 15 Nov. 2017,

[4]  Reuters. “Cambodia Daily Shuts with ‘Dictatorship’ Parting Shot at Prime Minister Hun Sen.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 Sept. 2017,

[5] [6][7] Lust, Ellen & Waldner, David. 2015. Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding. Washington, DC:USAID. pp. 6



  1. Leonard Cisneros

    March 15, 2018 at 5:07 pm

    Hi I found your article extremely interesting. Why do you think that people are afraid to speak up (and potentially protest) event though this regime uses force to surpass them. I ask this questions with today’s lecture in mind that mentioned that police brutality generally increases protester response. Do you believe that it is due to decades of rough authoritarian regimes in the region that have caused the people to become accustomed to such a government. If so, it would be difficult to find a course of action to amend this.


    March 15, 2018 at 6:30 pm

    After the Cambodian People’s Party amended the Law on Political Parties to automatically dissolve any political party whose leader has criminal convictions, leaving Prime Minister Hun Sen to have no opposing candidates in the July 2018 election , Cambodia’s government slid even further down on the democratic slope. A mark of democratic backsliding is manipulation of the electoral system in order to keep power. Democracy works because the people are able to voice their opinions and vote, which is supposed to end with political results that the majority of the public is satisfied with. In my opinion, I believe that grassroots movements and protests will help eventually aid in restoration of democracy for Cambodia. The government has made this hard to do by banning and controlling the media and newspapers, but if citizens fund a way to come together, they will have power in numbers to make change.

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