The governments of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) must intervene to end Cambodia's ongoing slide from a democracy into a dictatorship, several human rights organizations said, as member states kicked off the 32nd ASEAN Summit in Singapore.

In a letter addressed to Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan issued late on Wednesday, seven Cambodian and international rights groups noted that nine of ASEAN's 10 members signed the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement ending Cambodia's civil war, obligating them to address the severe deterioration in the state of human rights and democracy in Cambodia in recent months.

Under the agreement, Cambodia is required to respect human rights, according to international standards, and adhere to a system of liberal democracy on the basis of pluralism through which all citizens enjoy a full and fair opportunity to organize and participate in the electoral process.

Since September last year, Cambodia's Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) amid claims by Prime Minister Hun Sen that it sought to topple his administration, authorities arrested the CNRP's President Kem Sokha on charges of treason, and the government has launched a crackdown on NGOs and the independent media.

Wednesday's letter, signed by groups including ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the actions by Cambodia's government had effectively transformed the country into a one-party state ahead of a July 29 general ballot that appears guaranteed to keep Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) in power.

These and previous actions by the Cambodian government are in disharmony with ASEAN's core principal to 'promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law,' and should be seen as nothing less than a clear violation of the spirit and letter of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement, the letter said.

We appeal therefore to request for the reconvening of such a conference or one similar in nature that will outline concrete collective actions to reverse course in Cambodia, ahead of the elections in July.

Election credibility

The groups said that Cambodia's election has no chance for legitimacy if present circumstances persist, and suggested that ASEAN members use all diplomatic channels to call on Phnom Penh to reverse course.

Among the conditions the groups called necessary for credible elections to be held are the reinstatement of the CNRP, the immediate release of Kem Sokha and all political prisoners, allowing media outlets to operate free of violence and intimidation, and restoring the right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.

When the conditions are met, they said, domestic and international election observers should be granted free access to monitor all aspects of the electoral process, and a new election commission should be formed that includes members of the opposition.

The international community and the Cambodian people have invested a great deal in efforts to build a stable, democratic and prosperous Cambodia since 1991, and we urge the ASEAN community to stand by the Cambodian people to exercise their legitimate civil and political rights as important elections approach, the letter said.

Also on the first day of the April 25-28 ASEAN Summit, APHR issued a letter to Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, urging leaders of ASEAN member states to address pressing regional human rights concerns, including by taking steps to reform and strengthen their group's human rights mechanisms.

As regional integration proceeds, it is imperative for ASEAN to ensure that a focus on human rights is included in all pillars and sectors of the organization, the letter read.

ASEAN must also strengthen the protection mandates of its human rights bodies, if it seeks to be seen as a credible and outward-looking regional bloc.

APHR specifically raised what it termed an unprecedented assault on independent civil society and the opposition in Cambodia, with the group's chairperson Charles Santiago lamenting that ASEAN has largely stood by silently as problems there and in other parts of the region have mounted.

Parties react

On Thursday, the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM), a group formed by exiled leaders of the CNRP in response to their party's dissolution, issued a statement applauding the call by the seven rights organizations for ASEAN governments to intervene in Cambodia's backsliding on democracy.

We hope the ASEAN governments will live up to their earlier commitments to uphold peace and stability in Asia, CNRP Vice President Mu Sochua said, adding that it's of the utmost urgency that the entire region act for democracy and human rights in Cambodia.

July's elections are a breaking point for Cambodian democracy and stability in the region.

Mu Sochua said that if Hun Sen heeds international calls to allow free and fair elections in July, he could restore power to the people of Cambodia, but if he maintains his current crackdown, the country will continue its descent into dictatorship.

We must ensure these elections are free and fair, and the international community must play its part to hold Mr. Hun Sen and his regime accountable, she said.

The CPP on Thursday dismissed concerns over human rights and democracy in Cambodia, with party spokesperson Sok Eysan saying the issues had been raised during the ASEAN Summit for the political gains of the opposition party.

International NGOs do not understand the ASEAN Charter regarding its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of each member state, Sok Eysan said.

The idea that [our internal affairs] affect regional security is a one-sided opinion, and these groups only seek to frighten ASEAN members by raising this issue [during the summit], he said.

I am of the opinion that the 10 ASEAN members are not naive enough to be moved by the instigation and lobbying of these biased NGOs.

Last month, 45 countries signed a joint statement on the human rights situation in Cambodia, urging Hun Sen's government to reinstate the CNRP and allow the participation of all opposition parties in the July elections.

Both the U.S. and EU have withdrawn donor support for Cambodia's elections, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy in the country, including the banning of the CNRP and the arrest of Kem Sokha.

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