Cambodia has regularly ranked very poorly on international rule of law indexes. In 2015, The World Justice Project ranked Cambodia 99th of 102 countries surveyed, and regionally Cambodia performed the worst out of its Southeast Asian neighbours. The lack of judicial independence, enforcement of the law, nepotism and corruption all contribute to Cambodia’s poor rule of law performance. In a country where democratic freedoms continue to contract, those willing and able to speak about political interference in the judiciary and rampant state corruption do so with a high degree of personal risk.

While these rule of law indices are useful in highlighting areas where the rule of law is most absent within a society, they are unable to explain the causes and conditions for Cambodia’s poor rule of law, and the obstacles hindering meaningful reform. In order to better understand these factors, I spent three weeks interviewing key stakeholders, government officials and members of civil society on the limits to operationalising the rule of law in Cambodia. Towards the end of my fieldwork, the nature of my research became very much contextualised with the murder of a prominent Cambodian political analyst.

Cambodia’s declining democratic space was put into perspective on the 10th July 2016 when Kem Ley, a popular and outspoken political commentator, was gunned down in broad daylight at a local gas station, just days following his commentary on the controversial Global Witness report ‘Hostile Takeover: The Corporate Empire of Cambodia’s Ruling Family.’ In true Cambodian style the offender was arrested shortly after and paraded in front of local media. Using the alias ‘Chuop Samlap,’ which translates to ‘Meet Kill,’ the man confessed to the murder, apparently over $3,000USD in unpaid debt. The execution-style of the murder closely resembled earlier political assassinations previously seen in the country.

Tens of thousands of mourners paid their respects to slain commentator Kem Ley.

Tens of thousands of mourners paid their respects to slain commentator Kem Ley. Photo courtesy of Heng Chivoan.

Thousands of Cambodians began assembling at the murder scene to express their grief and anger, but also because they did not trust the local police at the crime scene. It is common for law enforcement officials in Cambodia to tamper with or destroy evidence. There are still conflicting reports whether or not footage of the crime was captured on closed circuit television. During an interview in the days that followed, I was told to be careful of plain-clothed policemen masked as bag snatchers trying to get hold of witnesses’ mobile phones that contained photos and videos of the murder.

Cambodians have become more connected to social media recently, and within hours counter-narratives were circulating online with accusations that Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, was behind the murder. Many commentators stated that Kem Ley’s murder was intended to instil fear into the population and to send a message not to challenge the government. In the 10 days that followed, tens of thousands of mourners paid their respects to the slain commentator. His funeral procession was the largest since the royal cavalcade for the late King Norodom Sihanouk in 2013. If Kem Ley’s murder was intended to silence the population, it did the complete opposite.

Tens of thousands of people turned out to attend Kem Ley's funeral procession.

Tens of thousands of people turned out to attend Kem Ley’s funeral procession. Photo courtesy of Pha Lina.

Since the 2013 election, there has been mounting discontent with Cambodia’s current political arrangement. Citizens, in particular Cambodia’s large youth population, want change. Increased social mobility and access to information have empowered youth to question and challenge the current regime which has been in power under Hun Sen since 1993. As the 2017 commune election and 2018 national election approaches, civil society has pushed for greater accountability and transparency within government and state ministries. Needless to say, the Cambodian People’s Party – the current ruling party – is on shaky ground.

Kem Ley’s murder paints a bleak picture for the rule of law in Cambodia. While there is little dispute over who is really behind the murder, how the case will play out legally is a script that has already been written. Cambodia’s judiciary is under direct control and influence from the executive. Judges are more often than not members of the ruling political party, and this party loyalty is crucial for securing their position and immunity. It is common for the Ministry of Justice to collude directly with judges and prosecutors prior to high profile and political cases in order to ensure desired outcomes. In legal cases involving business tycoons and elites it is almost certain to hear of large sums of money exchanging hands and political interference from the executive. The courts lack competence and are strategically targeting activists and opposition members through unfair trials. As a result, the Cambodian public have very little faith in the judicial system to deliver a fair trial and to uphold the rule of law.

For the past two decades, the judiciary in Cambodia has been manipulated as a tool for the ruling party to further its political agenda. Perhaps contrary to popular assumption, however, multiple interviewees informed me that judges did not necessarily seek out political cases. As one individual told me, once such cases land on their desk there was “no way out.” Judges are often forced to comply with orders from the top and to undermine the rule of law in order to avoid harassment or removal from their position. Compliance secures their economic and social status.

For Cambodian watchers there are both optimistic and pessimistic sentiments about the future. Cambodia’s civil society and youth continue to voice their demands for political change. The youth vote will be vital in determining the outcome of the 2018 election. However, two years out from the national election and an anxiety about the potential election outcome has already emerged. Cambodia has yet to see a peaceful transfer of power, and with the national security apparatuses directly under control of the executive, many Cambodians shared with me their fear of violence erupting or a return to the “Pol Pot days.”

In the lead up to both the commune and national elections it is likely that we will continue to see the current pattern of judicial abuse. Since the 2013 election, the judiciary has been used increasingly as a political tool to target land activists, human rights defenders and oppositional voices. One individual believed that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party had changed tactics. Previously, where political opponents were taken out by assassination, the current trend is to use the law and the courts to suppress the opposition, as legal means are “cleaner…[and] less bloody.” With the executive claiming an independent judiciary and trials in accordance with the rule of law, legal cases evade intense condemnation by the international community in comparison to physical violence exerted by the state. This being said, one member of civil society expressed to me that they [civil society and NGOs] are in “new territory” legally. Previously, the government simply manipulated existing legal frameworks; but they now commit arbitrary abuse that falls well outside of existing laws and constitutional provisions.

Lucy West is a PhD Candidate in the Griffith University School of Government & International Relations. Her research is concerned with the limits to operationalising the rule of law in Cambodia, with a focus on judicial independence. Funding support for this fieldwork was kindly provided through the Griffith Asia Institute’s HDR Conference and Travel Grant.