Cambodia’s National Assembly on Monday approved four amendments to the country’s electoral law, paving the way for 55 seats held by opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmakers to be redistributed to smaller government-aligned parties in the event that it is dissolved.
The parliamentary session, which was boycotted by all CNRP lawmakers and attended by Prime Minister Hun Sen, involved no debate and took less than two hours to approve the amendments, which would see the royalist Funcinpec party take 41 seats from the opposition should the CNRP be outlawed ahead of a general election slated for next year.
According to the new laws, the League for Democracy Party (LDP) would receive six of the CNRP’s seats, the Khmer Anti-Poverty Party (KAPP) would receive five, the Cambodian Nationality Party (CNP) would assume two seats, and the Khmer Economic Development Party (KEDP) would be given one seat.
Minutes before they were passed, Cheam Yeap, a senior member of parliament with Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) who represents the bloc of lawmakers that proposed the legislation, told reporters that the amendments were a byproduct of Cambodia’s electoral maturation process and not intended to target any one party.
“The amendments are commensurate with the rapid evolution of the national, regional, and international political contexts,” he said, adding that the laws “will fill in the gaps of some relevant legal principles and existing laws, and promote the rule of law.”
“The four proposed amendments of the four laws are not meant to destroy an individual or political party.”
Earlier this month, Cambodian government lawyers submitted a petition to the country’s Supreme Court, asking that it formally dissolve the CNRP.
The move followed the Sept. 3 arrest of CNRP leader Kem Sokha in the capital Phnom Penh and formal accusations against him of treason, in a move critics say shows Hun Sen is intensifying his attacks on political opponents ahead of national elections scheduled for July 2018.
Cheam Yeap said Monday that “evidence” shows Kem Sokha “received orders from foreigners, whom he treated as his leaders, to sabotage the nation and annihilate the Cambodian People’s Party,” and that ruling party lawmakers proposed the legislation as protection against the CNRP chief’s “treacherous activities and future plots to harm the nation and the people.”
Since Kem Sokha’s arrest, some 20 CNRP lawmakers, along with deputy presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang and a number of party activists, have fled Cambodia fearing retaliation by the CPP following important electoral gains by the opposition in June’s commune ballot, which are seen as pointing to a strong showing in next year’s vote.
Eng Chhay Eang, who has yet to return to Cambodia, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the amendments approved Monday are “illegal” and an attempt by the CPP to “avoid being seen as [ruling] a one-party state.”
“It’s like they are adjusting a head to fit a hat, rather than the other way around,” the deputy president said.
“The ruling party didn’t amend the laws to take all the CNRP’s seats for themselves, and instead would give them to minor parties. I treat that as an act of robbery of the will of the constituents.”
Eng Chhay Eang said that there is “no longer rule of law in Cambodia,” and that “Hun Sen is the law now … [as] whatever he says goes.”
“However, I do not think the people will tolerate such oppression for too long—tyrants will not prevail,” he said.
The approval of the amendments also drew criticism from rights organizations, legal watchdog groups, and members of the public, who suggested Cambodia’s laws were being manipulated to benefit the ruling party.
Adhoc president Thun Saray, who has been living outside of Cambodia since May 2016 following threats of arrest for intervening in criminal charges against five officials from his rights group, said the latest development in parliament showed the country was “straying too far” from the path of democracy and called for political leaders to resume dialogue to reduce political tension.
“Cambodia is sliding into an eventual disaster and the past [difficulties of the Khmer Rouge regime] will repeat itself if Cambodian leaders don’t return to democratic competition through free and fair elections,” he said.
“The desire to win power without considering the great damage to the national interest would lead this country and its people into tragedy.”
Sok Sam Oeun, chief attorney of the AMRIN Law and Consultants Group, condemned what he called “politically motivated” amendments that he said the CPP is trying to make appear legitimate.
“As long as the amendments are passed, they become laws, but they are politically motivated,” he said.
A law student in Phnom Penh, who asked to remain unnamed, told RFA that he was disappointed by ruling party parliamentarians “shamelessly passing laws to rob the CNRP of its seats.”
“I am very disturbed—it’s like a group of criminals are harassing a vulnerable victim,” he said.
“They are robbing him of his property and giving it to others.”
Also on Monday, former CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who resigned in February in order to preserve the party in the face of a law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party, published an open letter in the Phnom Penh Post calling for international pressure on Hun Sen’s government to preserve the opposition party and its representation in parliament.
Addressing representatives of the world's 173 parliaments at the Inter-Parliamentary Union underway in St. Petersburg, Sam Rainsy said from self-imposed exile in Paris that the possible dissolution of the CNRP “constitutes a grave breach of Cambodia's commitment to democracy.”
“As a representative of the Cambodian people elected and re-elected since 1993, and a former leader of the opposition in forced exile, I respectfully ask for the support of the world's parliamentarians to help their elected colleagues in the CNRP and defend the very principle of parliamentary representation," his letter read.
Sam Rainsy has been living in exile since 2015 to avoid convictions many see as politically motivated.
Last week, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) called the ruling party-proposed amendments to allot the CNRP’s National Assembly seats “a brazen attempt to legitimize a wholly undemocratic move: giving positions at all levels of government to parties who, instead of earning the vote of the people, sold their loyalties to the CPP.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.