Civil society’s ability to act rests on the realization of three fundamental rights: the right to freedom of association, the right to peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of expression. A recent report from CIVICUS found that roughly 85% of the world’s population lives in countries where those rights faced serious challenges in the year 2016. The types of restriction on these fundamental rights vary greatly.
Unfortunately Cambodia is not an exception to the global trend of shrinking civic spaces. On the contrary, it is one of the countries in south-east Asia that is experiencing a severe backlash against human rights. The right to state one’s opinion, to question government decisions, and to defend one’s rights without being threatened have never been fully realized in Cambodia, but over the last 18 months violations of international human rights law and the crackdown on civil society have reached extremely worrying levels. In 2016, a university student was sentenced to 18 months in prison because of a Facebook post on his page that called to start a “color revolution;” activists have been arbitrarily detained for months; opposition politicians are subject to legal harassment; and NGOs are threatened with being suspended or shut down due to allegedly violating “political neutrality.” Welcome to Cambodia, in the year 2017, where these are only a few examples of the shrinking civic spaces phenomenon percolating in the country. The International Center for Not-for-profit Law (“ICNL”) has assessed Cambodia’s legal environment as ‘not enabling’ for civil society, creating additional barriers with complicated registration requirements.
Just like many other countries, Cambodia’s legislature has adopted new, restrictive laws, like the Law on Associations and NGOs (the “LANGO”), that violate the right to association and the ability of civil society to function without fear. Under the LANGO, NGOs and associations are required to be registered. Unregistered NGOs and associations are not allowed to carry out any activities in the country. This constitutes not only a restriction of freedom of association and expression, it also violates international best practices and standards which require that registration should be voluntary. Further, even if organizations are registered under the LANGO, they are still required to either inform or ask permission in advance from local authorities, if they are conducting activities in a province other than where they are registered. Their meetings are often monitored by local authorities and police officers, and there are growing reports of harassment, threats, and even arrests of activists on missions in the provinces.
Another method to silence and immobilize civil society tends to be in the form of judicial harassment. Recent examples of judicial harassment include the arrest of Areng Valley activists objecting to the Areng hydroelectric dam project, and Mother Nature activists who were protesting sand dredging activities in Koh Kong. Probably the most prominent case of detained human rights defenders is the case of the FreeThe5KH detainees, five Cambodian human rights defenders and senior staff members of the Cambodian NGO Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (“ADHOC”), who collectively worked on the case of a woman alleged to have had an extra-marital relationship with a deputy leader of the leading opposition party in Cambodia. All five were detained on charges of bribery of a witness and spent over a year in pre-trial detention, despite a lack of any credible evidence against them, before being released on 29 June 2017. The case of the FreeThe5KH received considerable international attention. In November 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled their detention to be ‘arbitrary’ and urged the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) to immediately release the five.
Social media plays an important role as an instrument used by the government to nip public protest against government actions in the bud. The government not only controls the majority of Khmer language media, it also monitors civil society actions online very closely, enabled by the repressive new Telecommunications Law. The law gives the government the power to monitor and prosecute virtual communication that threatens national security. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”) conducted an analysis of the situation of internet freedom and digital rights in Cambodia after the Telecommunications Law came into force. The analysis includes case studies of seven people who have been arrested for their political comments online since August 2015. In addition, the study reveals that “at least 23 individuals have been publicly threatened since August 2015 on the basis of social media comments.” In the digital age, when social media has become one of the most important portals for political and public debates, these measures are used by state agencies as a tool to outlaw their critics.
It has become life-threatening to be a civil society activist in Cambodia. At least seven land activists have been killed since 2010. 2016 saw violent attacks on and arrests of opposition leaders and civil society activists. Prominent political commentator Kem Ley was shot dead at a convenience store on 10 July 2017, which left Cambodian civil society in shock and fear. Oeuth Ang was convicted in March 2017 of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison. International and national civil society condemned the lack of transparency in the investigation of Dr. Kem Ley’s death, the sloppiness of the trial proceedings, and the failure to fully investigate the motive, potential accomplices and the circumstances of the shooting. In two separate civil society statements, organizations expressed serious concerns about the adequacy of the criminal process and whether all those involved have been identified and brought to justice. Another case was the attack on Am Sam Ath and Chan Puthisak at the World Habitat Day in March 2016. The monitoring manager of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (“LICADHO”) tried to peacefully resolve the violent attack of para-police officers on land activist Chan Puthisak and consequently got targeted himself for simply doing his job as a human rights monitor at an otherwise peaceful protest.
Moving forward with combating shrinking civic spaces in Cambodia
The political climate in the run-up to the 2017 and 2018 elections that have been overshadowing all recent political developments for the past months, has been tense. However, it is these difficult times that illustrate the importance of the protection of civil and political rights of all citizens to ensure fair and free elections that reflect the will of the Cambodian people.
There must be better communication across different organizations, sectors and countries. Civil society is highly fragmented in itself due to different organizational goals, approaches and beliefs which often prevent it from effectively working together. It needs to be understood though, that the shrinking civic spaces phenomenon will be the major challenge facing all civil society organisations in the future, no matter what their fundamental beliefs or goals. If there is no push back against harmful regulations that stop CSOs from working, there won’t be room for effective human rights work of any kind. The most important thing to do for all civil society organizations and society itself is to not stop fighting this threatening trend and to develop methods to regain and create new civic spaces. It is of crucial importance to the future of civil society to not give in, to adjust, learn and evolve together. In many restrictive environments CSOs self-censor and refrain from doing work that could potentially make them a target of the authorities. While this is an understandable and sometimes necessary form of self-preservation to protect staff, partners and beneficiaries, it is also a fast-track to the disappearance of civil society. Cambodia’s civil society has always been strident and has not allowed itself to be silenced. There is an urgent need for civil society to find new approaches and measures that will force the Cambodian authorities to loosen their grip around the neck of civil society actors and to turn its focus back to what really counts – the interests of the Cambodian people.
Charis Uster, CCHR International Intern
 Civicus (n16)
 Cambodian Center for Human Rights (n7)
 Joint civil society statement (n10) and Amnesty International, ‘Cambodia: Significant Questions Remain After Guilty Verdict in Kem Ley Trial’, (23 March 2017). Available at: http://bit.ly/2sCp9Ep