Skip Navigation

The Brown Political Review is a non-partisan political publication that seeks to promote ideological diversity. All of the views reflected in BPR’s content are views held by authors and not reflective of the views held by the wider organization or the Executive Board.

Release of Political Prisoners in Cambodia is Only the Beginning

In recent months, the Cambodian government has released several political prisoners under mounting pressure from the international community, including the President of the main political opposition party, Kem Sokha, and several environmental activists. While the release of these prisoners is certainly a step in the right direction, it isn’t enough to solve Cambodia’s crumbling democracy. The countries and organizations that have been pressuring Cambodia thus far, namely the United States, European Union, and the United Nations, need to keep economic pressure on Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and high ranking members of the Cambodian government even in light of the recent political advancements.

While Cambodia has held democratic elections since 1993, it cannot be ignored that Hun Sen has been the prime minister of the country for 33 years. He has maintained this position chiefly through authoritarian means, funded through Chinese direct loans and the writing off of Cambodian loans. Hun Sen’s party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has been in power throughout the duration of his tenure as well. The 2013 elections showed immense promise for the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP won fifty-five seats in Parliament, lowering the number of CPP members to sixty-eight seats. However, various groups, including the CNRP and Human Rights Watch, believed there was voter fraud orchestrated by the CPP. Although requests for an investigation were denied, there was hope among the CNRP that the party could take control in the 2018 elections.

This optimism was dashed when opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested. Within a few months of his arrest, the CNRP was disbanded. In a Supreme Court decision all members of the opposition party were banned from politics for five years. These decisions were based on a narrative that the National Rescue Party was conspiring with the United States to overthrow the government. Although these charges were largely unsubstantiated and vehemently denied on both sides, Sokha was charged with treason. Around this time, Kem Ley, an activist and outspoken critic of the CPP, was shot and killed in what many viewed as a political assassination. Several UN human rights experts called for an impartial, non-governmental investigation but to this day there has been no credible investigation into the murder.

Moreover, news agencies and non-profits critical of the regime, including the National Democratic Institute and the Cambodia Daily, were either shut down or ousted from the country. The regime has oppressed free speech before — more than a dozen reporters have been killed since 1990 — and full government control of the news has further stifled the democratic process. This media and political censorship led to an election this past July in which there was essentially one party and one message. Predictably, the CPP won in a landslide victory. To combat the growing authoritarian nature of Hun Sen and the CPP, the United States and the European Union have placed sanctions on Cambodia and high-ranking government officials to pressure them. The European Union has also recently removed Cambodia from the Everything But Arms agreement, which previously allowed Cambodian goods to reach European markets tariff-free. However, the US and EU are certainly not Cambodia’s most important economic partners, as China has poured in hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few decades, more including the forgiven debt.

In light of this pressure, Hun Sen has released several prisoners over the past two months. But the reality of the situation still remains. The CNRP is still dispersed. When asked recently whether the party would be able to reorganize after the prisoners had been released, it was made clear the CNRP would not be allowed back in politics until at least the five year term is up. The election is already over. Hun Sen is still the Prime Minister with control of Parliament. Some of the prisoners that were released from prison, like Kem Sokha, are still under house arrest and are not being allowed to talk with other members of their community.

Now that Hun Sen has shown that the economic pressure is working, at least partially, the United States and European should keep this pressure on. However, they should be careful about this pressure. For example, removing Cambodia from the EBA might not have been the most effective way of punishing the Hun Sen regime or the government. The EU is Cambodia’s largest export destination, receiving about 40 percent of all its exports. Because of this trade relationship with the EU, Cambodia had seen an explosion within the textile industry which had led to job creation, and Cambodia’s removal from the EBA will adversely affect about 3 million workers in Cambodia. There should be more effective ways to economically leverage the regime without punishing the already oppressed people in Cambodia. For a leader who has shown he is not concerned with the wellbeing of the country as much as his personal gain, punishing the masses does not seem to be the most direct method of getting his attention.

Even though Hun Sen has a reported salary of $14,000 per year, reports of his actual net worth place him somewhere between $500 million to as much as $4 billion. Hun Sen and his family control most of the major businesses and industries in the country, from the main power supplier in the country, to the two main gas stations, to TV and radio stations. The United States and EU need to keep pushing Cambodia towards a more democratic government, but they should be mindful of targeting policies at those in power, not Cambodia’s lower classes, to effectively promote change.

Over the summer, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill called the “Cambodia Democracy Act of 2018.” The bill allows the United States to impose economic sanctions on high ranking Cambodian government, military, and security personnel, including visa restrictions. This kind of targeted economic action against specific members of the regime will have a greater effect, if also enacted by the EU, than broad economic reprisal, which puts many out of work but only tangentially effects Hun Sen or his friends and family. Visa restrictions enacted by the United States in 2017 seemed to have the desired effect, leading to the release of several political prisoners. Hun Sen has shown that he is more than willing to oppress and scare his own people. Economic or diplomatic actions that attack the general public of Cambodia without touching him, such as removal from the EBA, are not convincing ways to persuade him. What concerns Hun Sen most is wealth for himself and his family. Any pressure that is put forward, whether economic or diplomatic, should be targeted at Hun Sen and the advisors and family members closest to him to best pursue democracy in Cambodia.

It is true that the release of political prisoners is a step in the right direction. It is true that the mounting pressure seems to be having some effect on Hun Sen and the CPP. But until a legitimate opposition party is able to organize and fairly run a campaign against the CPP, there has been no victory. The release of these political prisoners should not distract from the overall picture: Nothing has really changed in Cambodia in terms of democratic rights or freedoms, and there is still a long way to go. The good news: There is a path to get there.

Photo: Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha Wave to Protestors

About the Author

Edward Uong '21 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Edward can be reached at