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The Trumping of Cambodian Democracy

Cambodian democracy has long been a shaky affair, with elections that are only sometimes free and fair. But by ignoring the slide toward dictatorship there and elsewhere in the region, US President Donald Trump is encouraging Asia's autocrats and damaging America’s long-term interests.

WASHINGTON, DC – Over the last year, Cambodia’s ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has dramatically increased its pressure on its political opponents and civil society. Democracy in Cambodia has always been fraught, and elections are not completely free and fair. But the current crackdown is much greater in scope, and far more concerning, in part because it is being enabled by American apathy.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, East Asia’s longest-serving non-royal ruler, has used his power to silence critics and close outspoken media outlets, including one independent newspaper, the Cambodia Daily.The CPP has also expelled the National Democratic Institute, a US-based nonprofit that focuses on rights and democracy, and detained political challengers. Kem Sokha, who co-headed the main opposition group, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested in September on dubious treason charges. The other main opposition figure, Sam Rainsy, remains in exile in France.

But in recent weeks, Hun Sen has increased the pressure, essentially ending Cambodia’s shaky attempts at democracy. Earlier this month, a court dominated by CPP allies dissolved the CNRP. As a result, the party will most likely be unable to contest national elections next year, all but ensuring that Hun Sen will win another term as prime minister. The ruling could also help enable Hun Sen eventually hand power to another family member. Fearing for their lives, around half of CNRP lawmakers have left Cambodia.

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