KESHA WEST, PRESENTER: Cambodia's ailing democracy has been thrown into crisis.
Less than six weeks before national elections are to be held, all opposition MPs were stripped of their wage, and their status as lawmakers.
Prime minister Hun Sen has been at the helm for almost 30 years, and this latest move has added to fears that he is turning the country into a one-party state.
Human rights advocates fear the international community might be forced to impose sanctions as a last resort to pressure the government to maintain democracy.
Virak Ou is director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
Virak Ou welcome to the program.
VIRAK OU, DIRECTOR, CAMBODIAN CENTRE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: Well thank you for having me on the program.
KESHA WEST: The international community is already highly sceptical about whether next month's elections in Cambodia can be free and fair. Surely dismissing all the opposition MPs from parliament wasn't the smartest move for prime minister Hun Sen?
VIRAK OU: I think all of us, the election observers, know full well that the next month's election will not be fair, given the control over television and other forms of media as well as the resources that the ruling party has. So that's out of the question. Fairness is out of the question.
The question is whether this next month's election will be acceptable to the Cambodian people as well as to the opposition politicians and the international community.
KESHA WEST: Yet surveys are showing the ruling Cambodian People's Party would probably win this election even if it was a level playing field. There's much more support for the CPP than there is for its rivals. It would seem that people are generally happy with the direction that the country is going. Is that a true indication from what you're hearing?
VIRAK OU: I think the second part is true. People are generally positive of the direction of this country. The recent survey indicated around 75 per cent to 80 per cent; I think Western countries would be happy with such a positive outlook of the population. But that I think reflects more on the changing demographics, the growing number of youth.
But I don't think the ruling party can feel that they will have a landslide victory, particularly with the two main opposition parties have now merged on one ticket, I think if the ruling party a bit more of a run.
KESHA WEST: Cambodian National Rescue Party president, Sam Rainsy, was instrumental, of course, in merging those opposition parties. He's currently in exile and is facing a significant jail term if he comes back to Cambodia. He's also banned from contesting this election. Does the Opposition stand a chance without him?
VIRAK OU: Well I think they do have a chance, even without him. I think the opposition needs reforms and needs to strengthen their own I think their internal party structures as well as develop some policies that attract young voters. I think there's an opportunity, this is an interesting election, it is an uncertain time.
But the level of hope and ambition of the young voters is one that I think the opposition could take advantage of. And I think it will remains to be seen how the opposition will react to it and try to attract the hopeful young voters. I think that's the key to this election.
KESHA WEST: You mentioned government crackdowns. What evidence you have seen of this?
VIRAK OU: At this stage, we have Sam Rainsy who cannot come and speak directly to the Cambodian audience, to the Cambodian voters. We have the deputy president of the opposition whos been harassed, who was prevented from holding rallies and meetings with his supporters throughout the country. The parliamentarians have been stripped of their role, the opposition parliamentarians have been removed from parliament, come with that removal is also the salaries, which is much needed for the opposition, as well as the immunity that protects parliamentarians.
KESHA WEST: Finally, it appears the international community has grown weary of prime minister Hun Sen's consistent refusal to play along with their rules. What's the next step? Sanctions?
VIRAK OU: If it has come to that, if it comes to sanctions, that would be really unfortunate. I think we have seen some economic growth, although inequality has widened. But I think more and more people, more and more Cambodians, are benefiting from some of the economic growth. Urbanisation and demographic shift is certainly is taking place on the ground now.
I would not call for sanctions, although I think that would be, that should be kept as a tool of last resort. I think the international community needs to speak out more. Many activists do need the support of the international community. So let's look at what we can do for now. I hope it will never come to sanctions.
KESHA WEST: Virak Ou, thanks very much for talking to us.
VIRAK OU: Thank you for having me.