And I thought Burma’s courts were bad…

One theme I regularly discuss on this blog is the constitutionalization or legalization of undemocratic rule in Southeast Asia. As despots have known for centuries, legal formalities can shroud anti-democratic and grossly illiberal tactics. In the Wall Street Journal, Carlyle Thayer professor of politics at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, recently discussed how Hun Sen‘s Cambodian People’s Party is beginning to rely upon courts to undermine political opponents rather than military coups (such as his 1997 coup against Ranariddh).
According to Thayer:

the country is once again on the brink of another political upheaval. This time, the battle lines are being drawn in courts rather than in the streets, but the effect will be the same—the slow but sure consolidation of authoritarian rule.

CPP-influenced courts regularly dismiss lawsuits brought against the government while convicting opposition deputies of defamation.

The immediate concern is (as always) Sam Rainsy. The CPP-dominated legislature recently stripped opposition leader Sam Rainsy of his parliamentary immunity, clearing the way for a provincial court to charge him with willfully destroying property (based on an odd incident at the Vietnamese border last month).

Generally, when a single-party or authoritarian government uses courts to prosecute political enemies, that is a strong indication that the regime is confident about its influence over the courts. Generally, after revolutionary or military juntas come to power, the leadership will purge the courts as much as possible. This sometimes involves establishing “special” security courts to handle politically sensitive cases that the regime doesn’t yet trust judges to handle. However, after gaining control over the courts, either by corrupting judges or replacing them, the regime then often utilizes courts against political dissidents to cover their actions in a thin veneer of legal legitimacy. The most prominent and obvious case of this has been Aung San Suu Kyi’s ongoing trial in Burma. However, I’ve seen similar patterns in China, Iran, and Brazil. There, the military junta knew far in advance how the judge would rule. It appears Cambodia under Hun Sen is taking a similar route to legalizing autocracy.
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