Sopheap Chak

25 October, 2016

Cambodia’s Shrinking Political Space

It is within the context of a global shrinking of civil society space that Cambodia has seen its own space for civic participation quickly diminishing. This shrinking of space presents Cambodian civil society organisations (CSOs) with a very real need to adapt in order to face the challenges ahead.

In recent months, CSOs in Cambodia have felt an increased tightening of their fundamental freedoms by the government, particularly following the arbitrary arrest and detention of five human rights defenders – four senior staff members from local CSO the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), and the deputy secretary-general of the National Election Committee. All five have been detained in pre-trial detention since 28 April on trumped-up charges in relation to their provision of legitimate human rights assistance to a former beneficiary.

 CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 Walther Tjon Pian Gi via Flickr

Following their arrest, civil society instigated the Black Monday campaign to express solidarity with the five and call for their release through a series of peaceful demonstrations and events. From the campaign’s outset, it was treated as de facto illegal activity, and each “Black Monday” event has been met with repression by the authorities. Several peaceful protestors have been arrested, only being released after signing documents agreeing to not engage in further protests. Following the assassination of the prominent political analyst Dr. Kem Ley in broad daylight in Phnom Penh on 10 July – in what is largely considered a politically motivated killing – the Black Monday campaign intensified. In August, two prominent activists, Ms. Tep Vanny and Ms. Bov Sophea were convicted for their peaceful participation in a Black Monday event. While Sophea was released due to time already served, Vanny remains in detention facing charges for a protest she participated in over three years ago.

In the meanwhile, the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations, adopted in August 2015, looms over civil society like a dark cloud. Cambodia’s CSO law, much like laws being passed across the globe to similarly restrict CSO activities, imposes severe restrictions on civil society by requiring mandatory and onerous registration procedures and arbitrary standards for shutting down CSOs.

In light of the seemingly endless onslaught of attempts to undercut and restrict civil society in Cambodia, CSOs are developing strategies on how to operate in an increasingly restrictive environment in order to avoid further government interference. In June, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) filed a submission to the UN Human Rights Committee in response to shrinking civil society space in Cambodia. Additionally, CCHR in partnership with several domestic and international CSOs has repeatedly called upon the Cambodian government to cease their politically motivated arrests and the use of the judiciary as a political tool to silence opposition. In August, over 50 local and international CSOs launched the #FreeThe5KH campaign in order to raise awareness about the five human rights defenders’ ongoing pre-trial detention and to provide a platform for people to share their messages of solidarity with them.

As civil society space continues to shrink, it is clear that adaptability is crucial: creating spaces where there were none before, continuing to find ways and means to speak out and encourage discussion, reminding people, particularly governments, that the voice of civil society cannot be easily silenced. However, despite a real need to adapt to an increasingly restrictive environment, CSOs must also remember their mandates and objectives. They must establish clear lines of communication between each other and work together in seemingly smaller spaces. Additionally, continued support of the international community is needed to support campaigns and call upon governments to change their practices. Recent events in Cambodia have proven that in light of increasingly narrow spaces for civil discourse, the need for domestic and international CSOs to work together in coordination is greater than ever.

This blog is the fifth in our series on the future of civic space. For more information on the topic, visit the International Civil Society Centre’s civic space website.

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