A renewed campaign by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to silence critics of his more than 20-year rule has put in jeopardy signs of progress in the economy and in civil society, U.S. officials and leading human-rights groups warn.
The arrests of three leading Cambodian human-rights activists in Phnom Penh on charges of defaming the government is the latest sign of a slide toward increasing authoritarian rule in the Southeast Asian nation.
“We are concerned that this may be part of a broader plan to quash the opposition,” U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Joseph Mussomeli told reporters in Phnom Penh after the Dec. 31 detention of Kem Sokha, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
Mr. Mussomeli, who witnessed the arrest of Mr. Kem Sokha, said the government “has scared … the opposition, and it becomes difficult to take these trappings of democracy as the real thing.”
The crackdown has brought an unusually sharp warning from the World Bank that international financial support for Cambodia may be in jeopardy.
Still coming to terms with the social, political and economic devastation of the rule of the Khmer Rouge, the country finally appears to be benefiting from the economic boom that has swept the region. Although still among the world’s poorest countries with per capita income of $320, Cambodia in recent years has showed an annual growth rate of about 7 percent in the gross domestic product.
Its two leading industries — garment exports and tourism — could be hurt by a political crackdown that angers Western donors and scares Western investors, said Ian Porter, the World Bank country director for Cambodia.
The arrests “will send a worrying message to potential investors and Cambodia’s development partners,” Mr. Porter said Monday.
Despite its economic growth, Cambodia receives an estimated $500 million annually in foreign aid. The next meeting of its donors is set tentatively for March.
With parliamentary elections set for 2008, the government’s repression campaign in the past year has been carefully calibrated, said Alex Sutton, resident program director in Cambodia for the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute (IRI).
“There’s no question Hun Sen is targeting each community in Cambodia that could threaten his power,” Mr. Sutton said this week in a phone interview from Phnom Penh. “This was something of a surgical strike.”
Sam Rainsy, head of the leading opposition party in parliament, fled the country in March after he was charged with defaming the prime minister. Other leading members of his party have been detained, and a Phnom Penh court last month sentenced Mr. Sam Rainsy in absentia to 18 months in jail.
In October, popular radio journalist Mam Sonando and the head of the country’s leading teachers union were detained on defamation charges.
In the space of five days beginning New Year’s Eve, three top human-rights activists were arrested: Mr. Kem Sokha; Yeng Virak, who runs the Cambodia Center for Education of Law; and Pa Nguon Teang, a journalist and acting head of Mr. Kem Sokha’s human-rights watchdog group.
Mr. Yeng Virak was released unexpectedly on bail Wednesday, but the others remain in custody. Suspects can be held up to six months in pretrial detention, and the defamation charge carries a year in jail or more.
“In the past few months, Hun Sen has gone after figures from the media, from the trade unions, from civil society, from the political opposition,” Mr. Sutton said. “It’s as if the government is taking a swipe at each pillar of dissent here to send each group a message.”
International advocacy groups such as IRI and Human Rights Watch say more detentions could be in the offing.
“The government knows it is vulnerable,” said T. Kumar, Asian specialist in the Washington office of Amnesty International. “No one thought they would go after a figure of the stature of Kem Sokha, and now no one can be considered immune.”
Mr. Hun Sen, in his first public comments on the arrests, told reporters Wednesday in Phnom Penh that he was only defending himself against false charges that he is a dictator.
“I am a victim,” he said. “When they accuse this regime of being a dictatorial regime and want to topple it, what does it mean?”
The prime minister said the arrests were legal proceedings for a court to decide, but critics say Cambodian judges have little real independence from the government.
Mr. Hun Sen is the longest serving leader in the region, having been part of the government since the Pol Pot regime was ousted by Vietnamese forces in 1979. He has allowed parliamentary elections since 1993, but has increasingly cracked down on Mr. Sam Rainsy and other opposition figures the more they threaten the control of his ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Mr. Kumar of Amnesty International and others say the crackdown may stem from another source: a border accord Mr. Hun Sen negotiated last year with neighboring Vietnam.
Cambodian critics have criticized the agreement, a sensitive subject for a prime minister long seen as too closely tied to his country’s traditional rival.
The defamation charges against Mr. Kem Sokha, in fact, relate to comments displayed on a banner his human-rights group flew at a Dec. 10 rally in the capital marking International Human Rights Day, which called the government a “traitor regime” that had “sold our territory to Vietnam.”
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Mr. Hun Sen’s party would be “committing political suicide” if it allowed such incendiary charges to circulate.
Said Mr. Kumar, “There is perhaps no more sensitive charge for a Cambodian leader than to be ‘soft on Vietnam.’ This has the potential to unite not only the opposition, but to create dissent in his own ranks. That’s why he is overreacting now.”
Mr. Sutton of IRI said the regime might have hoped its crackdown would not attract wide attention. If so, he said, it has been disappointed.
“The Bush administration, the leading Western embassies and the international organizations have all come down very hard on this,” he said.
“The government tried to play the repression game on the local level, and it has backfired on them. I don’t think in recent memory there’s been such a coordinated, strong international response to political backsliding as we’ve seen here in recent days.”