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Threat to free speech: The case of Cambodia

Sameera Pillai

Media: Voice of America

China’s Great Firewall which forms a part of the broader Golden Shield movement has attracted a lot of criticism from pro-democracy activists across the world. Recently, the Southeast Asian country of Cambodia made headlines when it announced that a similar internet ‘firewall’ system would be established in the country.

In February this year, the Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, signed a sub-decree to establish a National Internet Gateway (NIG) to manage internet connections. This allows the Phnom Penh government to surveil and censor Cambodia’s internet.

The government stated that this move was made to protect national security, and improve national revenue by restricting web connections which could potentially disrupt social order. However, imposing such regulations will undoubtedly stifle the citizens’ freedom of expression.

This also raises concerns about users’ privacy and citizens’ rights to internet access, and free speech. Furthermore, the new system will impact local businesses which have an online presence as internet speed will be affected.

Given the Hun Sen government’s repressive crackdowns on activists in the past, the motives behind establishing this internet firewall are clear. Cambodia has made every attempt to subdue all forms of dissent. Now, the internet firewall poses a threat to the possibilities of a multi-party democracy as envisioned under the Paris Peace Accord.

The Cambodian government and democracy

Current Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for over thirty years. In 2017, the Hun Sen-led government shut down an independent newspaper – Cambodia Daily. This was a clear crackdown on free press by the authoritarian government as the newspaper was often critical of the government. Moreover, the government has also been known to respond to peaceful protests by using violent means.

These instances reflect the Hun Sen government’s goal to create a climate where it has total control. By curtailing freedom of expression in the country, the government has suppressed all democratic values.

Now the Royal Government of Cambodia has moved towards suppressing digital freedom as well. It aims to control the flow of information by establishing the NIG. All internet traffic will be routed through the NIG. Essentially, this will allow the Hun Sen administration to block certain foreign websites and content, giving them greater censorship power.

International organisations like Human Rights Watch and Asia Centre have voiced their concern over the apparent online oppression in Cambodia. Even domestically, human rights advocates have continued to campaign for digital rights.

This censorship system is similar to China’s firewall, but while China is an economic powerhouse and an assertive actor in international affairs, Cambodia is an underdeveloped nation. It remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. In terms of international relations, imposing such curtailments will not bode well for the country.

Cambodia’s relationship with the West

Cambodia, once a multiparty democracy, has now become an increasingly totalitarian state. Hun Sen from the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) uses tactics of control and coercion to stay in power.

The United States has repeatedly made an appeal to the Cambodian government to restore democracy in the country. Moreover, in 2020, the EU removed some of Cambodia’s trade privileges. UN officials have condemned the establishment of the NIG by arguing that it threatens privacy of citizens, and impacts their freedom.

Over the years, the Cambodian government has ordered major crackdowns on activists and human rights groups. For instance, the country targeted an NGO called Mother Nature Cambodia which actively campaigned against illegal mining and destruction of the environment.

Western countries have kept Cambodia under close scrutiny because of its democratic degradation and active attempts to repress free speech. Despite being under scrutiny, how does Cambodia take such a brazen approach and undermine democracy?

The rise of China as a world power has challenged the post-war international order. It continues to employ aggressive foreign policies to claim geopolitical power.

While many countries continue to remain sceptical about China’s assertiveness, Cambodia has exclusively bandwagoned with China.

This can be attributed to two reasons. Firstly, Cambodia does not share a border with China meaning that there is no outright reason to face disputes with the Jinping-led government. Secondly, Cambodia’s poorly developed economy needs a boost, and the country can prioritise its economy by engaging with China – an economic superpower.

Across the Asia-Pacific region, issues with free speech and civil liberties have been prevalent in many countries. Democracy is clearly under threat in the region. Cambodia risks being sidelined by all the economically advanced countries in the West.

This is mainly due to the hegemonic party in Cambodia which has increasingly attempted to stifle democracy and push the nation towards authoritarianism.

Despite public outcry, Cambodia has followed China’s footsteps in establishing internet censorship systems. Will following China’s lead truly give Cambodia the economic assurance, and security guarantees it needs? It will be interesting to see how Sino-Cambodian relations will pan out, and whether China’s influence in the region will continue to grow.


Sameera Pillai is a Bachelor of Journalism and Communications graduate from the University of New South Wales. Her interests include human rights, geopolitics, climate change and sustainability, and gender issues. She is currently working as a Communications Coordinator at a law firm.