The former president of Cambodia’s opposition party has come out in support of a proposal to grant immunity to outgoing heads of state after Prime Minister Hun Sen dismissed it as a “wicked trick” meant to suggest his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will lose a general election set for next year.
On July 15, veteran politician and former senior official of the royalist Funcinpec Party Lu Laysreng wrote a letter to Hun Sen and Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha, proposing that the leaders of the two parties controlling parliament draft a law guaranteeing immunity from prosecution for all prime ministers after leaving office.
Hun Sen immediately rejected the proposal in a statement published by government-aligned Fresh News the following day, calling it a “serious insult to the CPP that might appear as if [the ruling party] is preparing to lose the election, while the opposition party is about to seize victory.”
“The proposal is wicked trick to make the public mistakenly think that the incumbent prime minister has been making serious mistakes, which is why he would support such a law,” said the head of Cambodia, now in his 33rd year of leadership.
He went on to slam the waning political power of the Funcinpec party since its success in the country’s 1993 election, and accused Lu Laysreng, who is now aligned with the CNRP, of “ill intentions.”
The CPP won last month’s commune elections, but the CNRP received nearly 44 percent of all votes to the ruling party’s 51 percent, in an outcome that many see as a bellwether for next year’s ballot.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service Wednesday from France, where he has lived in self-imposed exile since 2015 to avoid questionable defamation charges, former CNRP President Sam Rainsy said such legislation was necessary to avoid conflict in the event of government change.
“We had better create this law, even though now some individuals may feel ashamed to [initiate it],” he said.
“Our country is truly in need of such a law to ensure the smooth transfer of power and further progress of our democracy.”
Sam Rainsy also questioned why Hun Sen was no longer interested in being granted immunity, noting that the prime minister had been the one to propose a similar law during power-sharing negotiations held amid a post-election stalemate between the CPP and CNRP in 2013.
“Hun Sen personally proposed [at the time] that—should the CNRP initiate such a law to protect … the leaders of the ruling party from any [future] prosecution in the event of a power transfer [via election] to the CNRP—the CPP would definitely support it,” he said.
“But [Hun Sen added that] it appeared improper to have the CPP initiate the law.”
Sam Rainsy said that negotiations centered on reforming the National Election Committee (NEC), the nation’s top electoral body, and the leadership of the National Assembly, or parliament, and the proposal was dropped.
Responding to Sam Rainsy’s support for such a law, CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San echoed earlier statements from Hun Sen and called the proposal a bid by the CNRP to “lure the ruling party into a trap.”
Even if the law is drafted by the CNRP and submitted to the National Assembly, he said, CPP lawmakers—who hold 68 parliamentary seats to the opposition’s 55—will not support it.
The CNRP has yet to comment on whether it intends to pursue the proposal by drafting legislation for the National Assembly.
Need for law
Cambodian political analyst Chan Vibol told RFA that a law granting immunity to the outgoing prime minister would promote a spirit of compromise between Cambodia’s politicians in the event of a power transfer next year.
“There is a saying that ‘when the water is rising, fish eat the ants, but when the water is receding, the ants eat the fish,’ and in this kind of political culture—should power change hands—Cambodia will never enjoy any harmony,” he said.
“Creation of such a law would help to resolve that kind of culture. We don’t want to see revenge among politicians.”
But other experts have questioned the need for such a law, saying it could undermine the existing system.
Ou Virak, a political analyst who heads the Future Forum think tank, recently told the Phnom Penh Post that the proposed law would incentivize bad behavior, and that he believed more substantive efforts were needed to build trust between the parties ahead of the election.
“If we did [pass this proposal], the prime minister could do whatever he wants,” Virak said.
“To solve the problems we have at present, [we have to] demand our politicians have some flexibility, and give each other the confidence to take steps toward national unity.”
Political analyst Sok Touch told the Khmer Times that the proposal was a moot point because such mechanisms already exist.
“In the case that the prime minister does something wrong, the National Assembly has the right to vote for dropping the immunity of the prime minister,” he said.
“If the prime minister holds his position until the end of his mandate, that means that he has not done anything wrong, so there is no need for this law.”
Reported by Chandara Yang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.