Cambodia's Crumbling Democracy

Behind the Growing Repression

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen at a polling station in Kandal province during the 2013 general elections, July 28, 2013. Damir Sagolj / Reuters

In the early hours of September 4, the final edition of Cambodia’s oldest English-language daily rolled off the presses. The Cambodia Daily, founded in 1993, was a respected pillar of the country’s small independent media. True to its slogan—“All the News Without Fear or Favor”—the newspaper had forged a reputation for meticulous reporting and hard-hitting exposés, which belied its unassuming letter-sized format. A month earlier, the Cambodian government, under the long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen, had hit the paper’s publishers with a $6.3 million tax bill, ordering them to pay up or “pack up.” They had no choice but to fold.

The paper’s last day coincided with the arrest of the Cambodian opposition leader, Kem Sokha—an incident that made the front cover of the Daily’s final issue. Beneath the oversized headline, “Descent Into Outright Dictatorship,” was a picture of Kem Sokha being taken into custody by police shortly after midnight on September 2. Kem Sokha, who heads the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), has since been moved to a remote prison in eastern Cambodia. He faces 15–30 years in prison and has been charged with treason for conspiring with the United States to overthrow the Cambodian government.

As evidence, the authorities produced a video of Kem Sokha giving a talk in Australia in 2013, in which he describes meeting overseas experts “hired by the Americans in order to advise me on the strategy to change the leaders.” This, the government claimed, was proof of a conspiracy aimed at delivering a coup. It has since announced investigations of other CNRP leaders and has suggested that the party could be dissolved if it continues to back Sokha.

The closure of the Daily and the arrest of Kem Sokha represent unprecedented steps for Hun Sen, who has ruled in various guises since 1985. To be sure, periods of repression are a regular feature of Cambodian political life and have occurred periodically over the past quarter century, usually ahead of elections. But the

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