Topic: World News
Claudia Pilli and Alicia Mankel
Team Southeast Asia and Pacific Researcher,
Global Human Rights Defence.
Amid the upcoming elections in July 2023, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) under Prime Minister Hun Sen has resorted to renewed crackdowns on any political opposition in the country. Just recently, the Cambodian Constitutional Council confirmed the banning of the Candlelight Party, the largest opposition party in the country, for failing to submit its original registration certificate (Strangio, 2023). Human rights watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International immediately condemned the act as unconstitutional and undemocratic, turning the 2023 elections into a total farce (Human Rights Watch, 2023b; Strangio, 2023).
According to Human Rights Watch (2023b), Prime Minister Hun Sen has a history of violent rhetoric and openly threatening political opponents, as evidenced by a speech on 9 January 2023, in which he warned the opposition not to criticise the government ahead of the upcoming elections. The usage of repressive tools by Hun Sen and his party includes threats, harassment, intimidation, defamation and open violence against and the criminalisation of (human rights) activists and trade unionists, journalists, indigenous groups, and any dissenting person, f.e. during land conflicts (FIDH, 2023). In fact, just in February 2023, Cambodia was placed on the watchlist of repressive States by CIVICUS following the systematic attack on fundamental freedoms in Cambodia as a result of Hun Sen’s repressive policies of the past four decades (Al Jazeera, 2023a).
Background: Cambodia’s political and electoral system
With a parliamentary system and a constitutional monarchy, Cambodia has three separate parts of government: the executive, legislative, and judiciary. The monarchy, headed by King Norodom Sihamoni, plays a mostly symbolic role in political administration (Embassy of Cambodia, n.d.). The Prime Minister occupies a position of essential importance as the holder of executive authority within the government system, which is now represented by Hun Sen, who assumed office in 1985 (Slocomb, 2006). For more than three decades, Hun Sen has led the CPP and, effectively, the country, as Cambodia is a one-party dominant State. The Prime Minister has significant powers as the leader of the executive branch and is essential to developing and carrying out the nation’s policies (Slocomb, 2006). The Prime Minister’s role extends mere policymaking; he also assumes the responsibility of ensuring effective governance and the smooth functioning of the state machinery. This involves overseeing the implementation of policies, monitoring their progress, and making necessary adjustments to ensure their efficacy. Additionally, the Prime Minister serves as the primary representative of the government both domestically and internationally, engaging in diplomatic negotiations and fostering relations with other nations on behalf of the country.
The Cambodian Parliament consists of the National Assembly and the Senate. The National Assembly is the lower house, with elected members serving five-year terms (after five years, the general election is held on the fourth Sunday of July). Its duties include passing laws, approving the federal budget, and supervising governmental operations (International Labour Organization, n.d.). The Senate functions as the Cambodian parliament’s upper chamber. Members are both directly and indirectly appointed. The King appoints two senators, but people chosen by National Assembly members fill the other seats. Senators participate in the nation’s legislative procedures and act as a deliberative body throughout their six-year mandates. The Supreme Court serves as the highest judicial body, overseeing the legality and application of the law. The Constitutional Council regulates electoral procedures and arbitrates conflicts. The political environment in Cambodia has encountered difficulties, such as worries about the consolidation of power and restrictions on opposition groups.
The disqualification of the Candlelight Party
On 15 May 2023, the Cambodian election commission disqualified the Candlelight Party from the July elections this year, apparently because false registration documents had been submitted (Al Jazeera, 2023b). The Candlelight Party was the sole opposition to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s current ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) (Al Jazeera, 2023b). The election commission had previously required the Candlelight Party to submit its original registration documents from the Ministry of Interior; however, these documents were lost in a 2017 police raid at the headquarters of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), to which the Candlelight Party belonged (Al Jazeera, 2023b). Now, the CPP will run effectively unopposed, likely prolonging Hun Sen’s ‘decades-long grip on power’ (Al Jazeera, 2023b).
In fact, it was not the first time that Hun Sen avoided competition in national elections. In 2017, his government petitioned the Cambodian Supreme Court to dissolve the CNRP ahead of the 2018 national elections, accusing the party of plotting to seize power with US support (Al Jazeera, 2017). In this regard, CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested on 3 September 2017 (Al Jazeera, 2017). Back then, the sole opposition to Hun Sen’s party, as in the current circumstances, was the CNRP.
Other related crackdowns on the opposition
While ongoing restrictions on the right to strike and collective bargaining, especially for trade unions, have a long history under the rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, the repressions have intensified in view of the upcoming elections. For instance, in February 2023, Hun Sen unexpectedly revoked the operating licence of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, the parent organisation of Voice for Democracy and one of the last remaining independent news media outlets in Cambodia (Human Rights Watch, 2023a). Human Rights Watch (2023a) sees this as one of the last important steps in Hun Sen’s increasingly repressive media policy in recent years, with a steady decline in the Cambodian government’s tolerance for criticism.
On 3 March 2023, former opposition leader Kem Sokha was found guilty of treason and conspiracy with a foreign power under Articles 439 and 443 of the Cambodian Penal Code (FIDH, 2023). After extraordinarily long and flawed proceedings, Sokha has been sentenced to 27 years in detention and, additionally, deprived of his civil and political rights, such as the right to vote and stand in elections (FIDH, 2023). Consequently, Prime Minister Hun Sen is accused of using Kem Sokha’s arrest as a means to contain the opposition and foreign diplomats before the elections in July (Hutt, 2023).
On 17 May 2023, three Cambodian land rights activists were detained for ‘plotting against the government’ and inciting to a felony after they hosted a workshop for farmers, where the government accuses them of inciting them ‘to hate the rich’ by teaching them about the division between rich and poor in Cambodia (VOA, 2023). Once again, the charges can be understood as the deliberate intimidation of civil society actors and political dissidents.
Another example is the recent arrest and conviction of union leader Chhim Sithar and eight fellow and former trade unionists of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld for exercising their fundamental rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, as well as to organisation and collective bargaining (Amnesty International, 2023). On 25 May 2023, a court found the trade unionists guilty of inciting a felony or disrupting social security under Articles 494 and 495 of the Cambodian Penal Code (Amnesty International, 2023). As a result, Sithar was sentenced to two years in prison, while the others face judicial supervision between one and one and a half years (Amnesty International, 2023). These politically motivated charges appear to be directly attributable to the work of Sithar and her fellow unionists, blatantly undermining workers’ rights in Cambodia in an attempt to curb any opposition.
Conclusion and recommendations
In his almost 40 years of iron rule, Prime Minister Hun Sen has increasingly curbed the political opposition and any other dissent opinions, including critical journalists, activists, and landowners. As the upcoming elections will very much likely prolong Hun Sen’s and the CPP’s rule, Cambodia’s ruling party must a) end the government’s violent rhetoric concerning the opposition (that oftentimes incites violence against opposition politicians) and b) release detained political activists, trade unionists and any person detained for simply exercising their human rights, in order to uphold democratic principles and non-derogable rights such as the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of peaceful assembly or the right to vote. It is essential to allow and promote critical and democratic discourse and to ensure fair elections in which the opposition is also permitted to voice its opinion.
Al Jazeera (2017, November 16). Cambodia Supreme Court dissolves opposition CNRP party. Retrieved 30 May 2023, from
Al Jazeera (2023a, February 16). Cambodia placed on watchlist of ‘repressive’ states: CIVICUS. Retrieved 29 May 2023, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/2/16/cambodia-earns-place-on-watchlist-of-repressive-states-civicus
Al Jazeera (2023b, May 17). Cambodia’s main opposition party barred from July election. Retrieved 30 May 2023, from
Amnesty International (2023, May 25). Cambodia: Casino Union Leader Chhim Sithar and Strikers Convicted. Retrieved 29 May 2023, from
Amnesty International (2023). CAMBODIA 2022. Retrieved 30 May 2023, from https://www.amnesty.org/en/location/asia-and-the-pacific/south-east-asia-and-the-pacific/cambodia/report-cambodia/
Embassy of Cambodia (n.d.) Monarchy. Retrieved 30 May 2023, from https://www.embassyofcambodiadc.org/monarchy.html
Human Rights Watch (2023a, February 14). Cambodia: Hun Sen Extinguishes Media Freedom. Retrieved 30 May 2023, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/02/14/cambodia-hun-sen-extinguishes-media-freedom
Human Rights Watch (2023b, April 24). Cambodia: Renewed Attacks on Political Opposition. Retrieved 29 May 2023, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/04/24/cambodia-renewed-attacks-political-opposition
Hutt, D. (2023, May 30). Hun Sen Is Keeping Kem Sokha Hostage. Will the West Respond to His Threats? The Diplomat. Retrieved 30 May 2023, from https://thediplomat.com/2023/05/hun-sen-is-keeping-kem-sokha-hostage-will-the-west-respond-to-his-threats/
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) (2023, March 3). Cambodia: Conviction of former opposition leader a “judicial charade”. Retrieved 30 May 2023, from https://www.fidh.org/en/region/asia/cambodia/cambodia-conviction-of-former-opposition-leader-a-judicial-charade
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) (2023, March 15). Cambodia: UN body slams violations of economic, social, and cultural rights. Retrieved 29 May 2023, from https://www.fidh.org/en/region/asia/cambodia/cambodia-un-body-slams-violations-of-economic-social-and-cultural
International Labour Organisation (ILO) (n.d.), CONSTITUTION
OF THE KINGDOM OF CAMBODIA. Retrieved 30 May 2023, from https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/ELECTRONIC/35789/72242/F1994980854/KHM35789.pdf
OHCHR (2022, March 11). In Dialogue with Cambodia, Experts of the Human Rights Committee Ask about Freedom of Expression and Raise Issues Concerning COVID-19 Prevention Measures. Retrieved 30 May 2023, from
Radio Free Asia (2015, April 29). Hun Sen to Seek Fifth Term as Cambodia’s Prime Minister. Retrieved 30 May 2023, from https://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/hun-sen-to-seek-fifth-term-as-prime-minister-04292015170205.html
Slocomb, M. (2006). The Nature and Role of Ideology in the Modern Cambodian State. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 37(3), 375–395. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20071782.
Strangio, S. (2023, May 26). Cambodia’s Largest Opposition Party Officially Ruled out of July 2023 election. The Diplomat. Retrieved 29 May 2023, from https://thediplomat.com/2023/05/cambodias-largest-opposition-party-officially-ruled-out-of-july-election/
United Nations Human Rights Committee (2015, April 27). Concluding observations on the second periodic report of Cambodia. Retrieved 30 May 2023, from https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/794964#record-files-collapse-header
VOA (2023, May 24). Cambodian Land Activists Arrested for Allegedly Inciting Farmers to Hate the Rich. Retrieved 30 May 2023, from https://www.voanews.com/a/cambodian-land-activists-arrested-for-allegedly-inciting-farmers-to-hate-the-rich/7106700.html
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