The harshest political crackdown in years is under way in Cambodia in what some analysts are calling the final stage in Prime Minister Hun Sen's drive to consolidate unchallenged power.
During the past year, he has choked off the last effective political opposition while continuing to marginalize the monarchy, manipulate the courts and intimidate labor unions and other civic groups.
In December, the leader of the only significant opposition party, Sam Rainsy, who had already fled the country, was sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison for criminal defamation.
Now, with a series of arrests and lawsuits on defamation and related charges, Hun Sen is for the first time directly attacking the human rights groups that, by default, serve as a de facto democratic opposition.
"Cambodia right now is at a crossroads: It must decide whether it's going to be a real democracy or whether it's going to move inexorably toward a one-party state," US ambassador Joseph Mussomeli said.
The special UN envoy for human rights in Cambodia, Yash Ghai, said only strong action from the foreign countries that support Cambodia's economy could stop the slide.
"It has all the hallmarks of the beginning of a totalitarian regime," he said.
The human rights groups are the most substantial and lasting legacy of a major international effort by the UN in the early 1990s to implant democracy in Cambodia.
From 1975 to 1979, the communist Khmer Rouge caused the deaths of 1.7 million people, comprising nearly one-fourth of the nation's population.
In the decade that followed, Cambodia was ruled by a Vietnamese-backed communist government in which Hun Sen rose to leadership.
Hun Sen staged a coup in 1997. He then intimidated opponents, manipulated elections and cut constitutional corners, allowing him to move steadily to reclaim the full powers he held before the UN intervention.
The forms of democracy remain. A parliamentary election is to be held in 2008.
Hun Sen also noted that he had not taken action against Sam Rainsy's party, just against Sam Rainsy.
These forms, however, do not compensate for a policy of intimidation, the US ambassador said.
"They have scared the hell out of the opposition, and it becomes more difficult to take these trappings of democracy as the real thing each time another voice is silenced," Mussomeli said.
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