PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - “We speak our mind”, says the website of a group of young Cambodians who have met at weekends for the past six years to discuss politics over mugs of coffee.
But discussions by the Politikoffee group were postponed indefinitely by the organisers after the main opposition party was dissolved last week at the request of authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
For participants, the suspension of their meetings because of the difficult environment was just one more sign of debate being shut down in what has been one of Southeast Asia’s most open societies.
“People are sensitive in talking about politics or talking about what the government is doing right now,” said Noan Sereiboth, 28, a researcher for health projects who was a regular attendee at the Politikoffee gatherings.
“Sometimes people’s parents tell them not to talk about politics to stay safe,” he said.
The arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha for alleged treason in September and the ban on his party have eliminated the main obstacles to Hun Sen extending more than three decades in power in a general election next year.
But the crackdown by the government has been felt much deeper: to once vocal civil society groups nurtured by Western donors, to independent media and to anyone posting subversive comment on social media.
“Local NGOs have been paralysed and scattered,” said Naly Pilorge of the Licadho human rights group, which has a long record of reporting on detentions and land seizures.
“People say space is shrinking. It’s not shrinking, it’s closed,” she told Reuters at her office in Phnom Penh.
Three other groups declined to comment or did not respond to requests for official comment.
It was not lost on the groups that their names featured as associates of the opposition during testimony at the Supreme Court on banning the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was accused of plotting a revolution with American help.
The opposition says there was never a plot, dismissing accusations as a ploy to eliminate Hun Sen’s rival.
“GRADUATED FROM FEAR”
The government said nobody had reason to fear in a country that has been transformed since the devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s.
“Everyone has full freedom of expression in every way,” said Huy Vannak, undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry. “We have long graduated from fear.”
Civil rights groups and other non-governmental organisations flourished in Cambodia with the help of Western countries that hoped to build a liberal democracy after the first multiparty elections in 1993.
That brought a more open environment than in neighbouring countries such as communist Vietnam and Laos or military-ruled Thailand, with its harsh sentences for criticising the monarchy.
But Western donors lack the weight they one had in Cambodia and Hun Sen has brushed of their criticism of the crackdown.
China is now the biggest aid giver. Since the ban on the CNRP, it has voiced support for Cambodia in the name of protecting political stability and economic development.
Politikoffee, which gets speakers from all sides for its debates, said that postponing its recent events because of the difficult environment did not mean it was giving up.
“We hope we can weather the dramatically changing political order,” team leader Aun Chhengpor told Reuters. “The forum will be back in place soon.”
Although the debates among a few dozen participants cost little to organise, Politikoffee uses space provided by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a German pro-democracy group which said it had no say over the group’s discussions.
The political troubles are not evident in the daily bustle of Phnom Penh, capital of a country of 16 million people which has recorded economic growth of around seven percent for the past six years.
But few wish to speak about politics.
“We must just keep quiet and let it pass,” said Chrock Soth, 46, who just about makes a living selling bananas from his bicycle on the outskirts of the city.
In an informal survey of more than 30 people in and around Phnom Penh, traditionally a stronghold of the opposition, roughly half declined to comment on the situation or said they did not care about politics.
The rest were unhappy, but said they could do nothing.
“Youths care about politics,” Noan Sereiboth said. “But in the current situation they can’t do anything except watch.”
Editing by Bill Tarrant