TEHRAN, Young Journalists Club (YJC) -In June last year, Khoeun Virath was elected as a commune councillor in the capital of Cambodia, but months later his political party was banned and most of its leadership fled into exile - so now he works as a tuk-tuk driver to make ends meet.
Virath’s story is just one example of how a once-thriving opposition has been silenced and pushed underground by long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen and his allies ahead of a general election set for July 29.
The government denies it has set out to sideline critics.
“We have never banned criticisms but we ban insults and incitements because in an election situation, people need security physically and mentally,” government spokesman Phay Siphan said.
Hun Sen, who has ruled this Southeast Asian nation for over 30 years, has had virtually no opposition since November when the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved by the Supreme Court at his government’s request. CNRP was narrowly defeated in a 2013 general election.
Amid condemnation from the international community, CNRP leader Kem Sokha was jailed last year on treason charges and almost 5,000 local authority positions his party had won were handed to members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
“Inside the country, (CNRP members) are completely cut-off from communicating with each other,” 30-year-old Khoeun Virath told Reuters at a cafe in Phnom Penh in what was once his constituency. “There is no leadership structure left.”
Many Cambodians are afraid to speak about the election, fearing their views could land them in trouble. Hun Sen has accused the United States of supporting the CNRP and plotting a “color revolution” to overthrow his government.
Hoping to expose the election as flawed, opponents of Hun Sen have launched a campaign urging Cambodians not to vote.
“People here are afraid, people don’t want to speak out,” said Khoeun Virath, who said he has been followed by plainclothes police many times.
The government says calls for a poll boycott are illegal and has invited 50,000 observers, including some from China, Myanmar and Singapore, to monitor the election.
Soeung Sen Karuna, 41, an investigator for rights group Adhoc, one of the oldest rights groups in Cambodia, said his organization had been accused of plotting a revolution and was finding it increasingly difficult to work.
“NGOs who work in other sectors are scared of cooperating with us,” he told Reuters at Adhoc’s office in Phnom Penh.
Five members of Adhoc were detained without trial for 14 months before being released on bail last year. They were charged with bribing a witness in a case against the now-jailed opposition leader, Kem Sokha. Supporters of Kem Sokha say the charges are politically motivated.