Filipinos should watch with interest developments in Cambodia, a leading member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that has in the last few years gravitated towards China. In a ruling on Thursday, the country’s Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party and banned 118 of its members from politics for the next five years in what is widely seen as a blatant move by Prime Minister Hun Sen to neutralize political opponents and silence critics ahead of the elections in July next year.
The Hun Sen administration has been accusing the Cambodia National Rescue Party of plotting a coup. The CNRP, which is expected to pose a serious challenge to the strongman rule of Hun Sen in the elections, vehemently denies the accusation. International human rights groups and political analysts back the party’s stand, saying Hun Sen has not produced any evidence to back up his claim. In the 2013 elections, CNRP scored major victories and nearly unseated the prime minister.
Apparently threatened by the rising opposition, the Sun Sen administration began a crackdown that decimated the party. The party leader was charged with criminal defamation and was forced to flee the country in 2016. His successor was charged with treason and remains in jail. As the crackdown on the opposition intensified, 20 CNRP leaders, more than half of whom are parliament members, also fled.
It’s not just the opposition party that was targeted by the government crackdown. Civil society groups and independent media outlets were also targeted. In September, the government shut down the English-language Cambodia Daily, and closed down radio stations that aired programming from U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, whose reports the government allege are biased. The government also expelled the US National Democratic Institute, which helped train political parties and election monitors, accusing it of colluding with its opponents.
Analysts say the Cambodian regime was emboldened by US President Donald Trump, who has welcomed Thailand’s coup leader to the Oval Office and praised the Philippine president despite a crackdown on drugs that has left thousands dead. And if I may add, the silence of ASEAN on human rights concerns in the Philippines’ bloody drug war and the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
Amid all these, Cambodia maintains trappings of democracy, albeit with weakened institutions, failed rule of law and a biased judiciary.
It’s happening right in our homeland, which has been tilting towards authoritarian China and Russia but has kept a fragile, opportunist bond with old ally United States, only because President Donald Trump has been similarly exhibiting authoritarian and fascist tendencies.
Even before President Rodrigo Duterte formally assumed the presidency, he had already threatened to abolish Congress if it gets in the path of his supposed reform agenda, and vowed to kill thousands of drug lords and users and other criminals, which the government could not do without disregarding the rule of law. He has not abolished Congress but continues to threaten to declare a revolutionary government or a nationwide martial law if threats to his government became violent.
In his first few months in office, the Department of Justice filed obviously trumped-up drug charges against Duterte’s fiercest critic, Sen. Leila de Lima, who remains in jail without the benefit of trial where she can refute the claims of convicted drug lords and criminals, whose weak testimonies were made the basis for the drug charges, which prevents her from posting bail for provisional release.
In apparent moves to further silence the opposition, Duterte accused Filipino-American and Philippine civil society leaders and Liberal Party members of plotting to destabilize his government and oust him, and threw wild accusations against critics Senators Antonio Trillanes IV, Bam Aquino and Risa Hontiveros.
In other moves to weaken democratic institutions, the Duterte administration and his allies in Congress filed impeachment complaints against Commission on Elections Chairman Andres Bautista (who was eventually forced to resign), Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno (who they are pressuring to resign under threat of public humiliation that to their credit the two feisty ladies have refused to do), and suspended the barangay elections.
The move was seen as a move to control the Supreme Court, which like the Cambodian court can go handy when critical issues such as a nationwide martial law declaration, criminal conviction appeals of opposition leaders, presidential and vice presidential protests such as that of defeated VP candidate Bongbong Marcos, and, yes, even the dissolution of the opposition party and disenfranchisement of opposition politicians.
The threats have obviously seeped into the Supreme Court when it legitimized the martial law declaration in Mindanao and when it denied De Lima’s petition for bail in what Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio described as “one of the grossest injustices ever perpetrated in recent memory in full view of the Filipino nation and the entire world.”
With the resignation of Bautista effective end of the year, Duterte can now appoint the chairman of the poll body ahead of the mid-term and local elections in May 2019. With the suspension of the barangay elections, the terms of the current local leaders would expire and he can appoint acting barangay leaders in time for controlling the basic political units in preparation for the 2019 elections.
Duterte has also threatened human rights leaders and other civil society leaders, and to show his disenchantment with human rights critics, his allies in the House of Shame, led by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, reduced the budget of the Commission on Human Rights to a mere one peso. Fortunately, reason prevailed and the CHR got its budget back. But it was a blatant move to show that those little tyrants in the Lower House can do as it pleases if anybody crosses their and their boss’s path.
In addition, Duterte and his allies have been putting pressure on media outlets like the Philippine Daily Inquirer, ABS-CBN, and Rappler, which have been publishing critical articles against the administration. They have also been harassing individual media men, such as Rappler’s Raissa Robles and recently, the BBC reporter who was confronted by a member of Duterte’s team of bloggers and trolls while fellow blogger cum Assistant Communications Secretary Mocha Uson watched without doing anything to stop the embarrassing scene during the ASEAN Summit in Manila.
The country is on the road to authoritarian rule even under the shadow of democracy, and the Cambodian experience should warn many Filipinos to remain vigilant against similar moves in the country. Never again to martial law, never again to authoritarian rule.