Cambodia’s Supreme Court has ordered the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to prepare a legal response to complaints lodged by the Ministry of Interior calling for its dissolution, despite increasing concerns over the state of democracy in the country ahead of elections next year.
In an order issued on Oct. 9, a copy of which was obtained by RFA’s Khmer Service, Supreme Court Judge Sem Sakkola said the CNRP has 20 days to respond to the complaints initiated last week by two minor parties aligned with Prime Minister Hun Sen—the royalist Funcinpec Party and the Cambodian Youth Party.
CNRP chief whip Son Chhay told reporters following a meeting with the party’s working group and 25 provincial and municipal executive committees at CNRP headquarters on Tuesday that he had received the order, but had yet to make a decision on how to respond.
“We must first consult with our legal team with regard to the court procedures,” he said.
“As we all know, legal procedures at the Supreme Court require special attention.”
Son Chhay said that “a number of foreign diplomats” had meanwhile told him Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had guaranteed their embassies that the CNRP would “never be dissolved,” regardless of the political situation in the country.
The CNRP remains committed to holding talks with the CPP in order to ease tensions, he added, in interest of the nation and the people of Cambodia.
Last week’s petition to dissolve the CNRP follows other government moves to destroy Cambodia’s most effective political opposition to Hun Sen’s 32-year rule. The CNRP’s performance in local elections in June were seen as pointing to a strong showing in next year’s general elections.
On Sept. 3, party leader Kem Sokha was arrested without a warrant in the capital Phnom Penh and accused 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.
Almost 20 CNRP lawmakers, along with fellow deputy presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang and a number of party activists, have meanwhile fled Cambodia fearing retaliation by the CPP following important electoral gains by the CNRP in June’s commune ballot.
The CNRP has no plans to replace Kem Sokha as leader of the party, Son Chhay said Tuesday, unless he is convicted of the charges against him in a court of law.
Son Chhay’s comments came as CPP lawyers and lawmakers submitted four draft laws to the National Assembly that would see the CNRP’s parliamentary seats distributed to other political parties that took part in the country’s 2013 general elections and June vote, should the opposition party be dissolved.
The proposals would amend the Law on the Election of the Members of Parliament; the Law on the Election of the Members of the Senate; the Law on the Election of Provincial, Municipal, and District Councilors; and the Law on the Election of Commune Councilors.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan denied knowledge of the draft amendments Tuesday, but National Assembly Secretary-General Leng Peng Long confirmed that the General Secretariat had already received the proposals and forwarded them to the Assembly’s permanent committee, which plans to review them at an Oct. 12 parliamentary session before submitting them to the legislation commission.
“The work of the permanent committee is administrative—they are examining whether such proposed amendment laws are made properly in accordance with legal procedures,” Leng Peng Long said.
“If correct, it will forward them to the expert commission to conduct a study and advise the permanent committee.”
At present, the CNRP holds 55 seats in the National Assembly, around 5,000 councilor positions at the commune level, nearly 800 provincial/municipal level councilor positions, and 11 senator positions through the Sam Rainsy Party, which combined with the former Human Rights Party in 2012 to form the CNRP.
CNRP Vice President Eng Chhay Eang told RFA’s Khmer Service Tuesday that opposition lawmakers would boycott the Oct. 12 parliamentary session in protest of the government’s “relentless clampdown” on the opposition, including its arrest of Kem Sokha.
“We call on our allied countries and the international community … to ensure that Cambodia respects the principles of democracy and human rights—in particular, upholding a multiparty democracy—and to urge the Cambodian government to end its political persecution of the CNRP,” Chhay Eang said.
According to Article 78 of Cambodia’s Constitution, the mandate of the National Assembly is five years and only expires once new members assume power. The National Assembly cannot be dissolved prior to the end of its mandate unless the government has been voted out twice within a period of 12 months.
Head of the legal and investigation team for electoral watchdog the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) Yoeung Sotheara expressed concern over the CPP’s proposal.
“The way they employ such a mechanism to dissolve the opposition party and redistribute its seats to minor parties, which are the allies of the ruling party, is the gravest injustice to voters,” he said, adding that it amounted to “dissolving the will of the people who voted for the CNRP.”
A lawyer, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said that in countries which properly uphold the law, amendments can only be made in cases where implementation of the law affects national interests and the interests of the people, and provided the amendments serve those interests.
The lawyer said he considered the ruling party’s move “an act of betraying the will of the people, tantamount to a constitutional coup.”
Meanwhile, international criticism continued to mount against Cambodia Tuesday, with New York-based Human Rights Watch urging donor countries to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions against Hun Sen’s government in response to its political clampdown on the CNRP.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch said the government’s efforts to dissolve the CNRP “will render national elections in July 2018 undemocratic” and, if effective, “would deny Cambodians the fundamental right to elect a government of their choosing.”
“The Cambodian government’s lawsuit to dissolve the main opposition party ahead of the 2018 elections is a naked grab for total power,” said James Ross, Human Rights Watch’s legal and policy director.
“Governments that still insist Cambodia is democratically ruled should act to reverse this development, or share the blame for democracy’s demise under Hun Sen’s autocratic rule.”
CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan dismissed the statement, which he said came from an organization that is “politically biased” in support of the opposition, and said that only the CNRP was to blame for the current situation after becoming involved in treason against the government.
The CPP is not concerned over the possibility of diplomatic or economic sanctions imposed by Western governments, he added.
Human Rights Watch's statement came a day after the European Union expressed concern over the Cambodian government's actions seeking the dissolution of the CNRP, which it labeled "very worrying."
"The enforced removal from the political scene of a party that won more than 40 percent of the popular vote in the recent commune ... elections would be a serious blow to democracy in Cambodia and would undermine the credibility of the current elections process," the EU delegation said in a statement on Monday.
"We urge the Government of Cambodia to reconsider," the statement added.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.