Cambodia’s King Sihamoni OKs Divisive Laws to Reallocate Opposition Parliamentary Seats

Observers say the legislation could precipitate Cambodia’s slide into dictatorship.

King Norodom Sihamoni, front left, is greeted by Prime Minister Hun Sen, second from right, at Phnom Penh International Airport, July 5, 2016.

Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni has approved a set of controversial amendments to the country’s electoral law, paving the way for the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the reallocation of its parliamentary seats to government-aligned parties.

The king signed the four amendments into law immediately after they were deemed acceptable by the Constitutional Council of the National Assembly, or parliament, on Tuesday in a decision made “without undue urgency.”

The amendments, which were provisionally approved in a parliamentary session last week that was boycotted by all CNRP lawmakers, would see the royalist Funcinpec party take 41 of 55 seats from the opposition should it be outlawed ahead of a general election slated for July 2018.

According to the legislation, 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.

The CNRP’s commune councilor positions, won in local elections held in June, will also be redistributed in the event that the party is dissolved.

The new laws follow the Sept. 3 arrest of CNRP leader Kem Sokha in the capital Phnom Penh and formal accusations against him of treason—moves critics say show Prime Minister Hun Sen is intensifying his attacks on political opponents ahead of next year’s national elections.

Hun Sen has threatened to shut down the CNRP for allegedly collaborating with the U.S. to topple the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power with the help of U.S. experts, though the U.S. embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington is interfering in Cambodian politics.

Observers suggested Wednesday that King Sihamoni had moved too quickly in approving the amendments, which they said were not in the public interest and put Cambodia in danger of sliding into a dictatorship.

Political analyst Lao Monghay told RFA’s Khmer Service that the king should have thoroughly reviewed the amendments before signing them into law.

“These laws are not right—they are immoral—and by signing them, the king’s will, credibility, and impartiality has been seriously compromised,” he said.

Yoeurng Sotheara, an electoral monitor for the civil society group Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), told RFA that Hun Sen is carrying out a coup against the constitution—the laws of which should protect political parties from being dissolved by the government.

“The Cambodian people had already chosen their leader in 2013,” he said, referring to the results of the last general election, which allowed the CPP to maintain control of parliament and Hun Sen to remain Cambodia’s prime minister.

“There is no need to change the competitive condition at this time.”

Call to defect

Meanwhile, Hun Sen called on members of the CNRP to defect to the CPP during a speech he delivered to more than 10,000 workers in the capital on Wednesday, saying the ruling party would welcome opposition commune councilors, lawmakers, and activists with open arms.

Elected CNRP officials could continue to operate in their current capacity under the aegis of his party, the prime minister added.

“When the CNRP is dissolved, their seats will automatically come to the CPP, so we will register them on our list,” he said.

While some CNRP activists and politicians have switched allegiances to the ruling party, the majority have vowed to continue their work with the opposition.

Sin Chanpov Rozeth, the CNRP chief of O’Cha commune in Battambang province, told RFA that she would not be swayed by Hun Sen’s entreaties, adding that the CPP was driving voters to the opposition by targeting her party.

“I will stand with the people who voted for me—I won’t allow them to live hopelessly,” she said.

“I won’t betray my will and commitment by defecting to the CPP.”

Kem Leang, a CNRP member of the O’Chrov commune council in Battambang, posted a video to her Facebook account on Wednesday in which she vowed to “continue serving the people” and said she would rather lose her position than defect.

“I don’t need money from the CPP—the people would scold and blame me if I was to accept it [and become beholden to the ruling party],” she said.

“I will not betray the people’s support, or that of the voters. Money can’t convince me to defect to the CPP.”

Lawmaker pardoned

Also on Wednesday, King Sihamoni granted a royal pardon to jailed CNRP parliamentarian Hong Sok Hour after he sent an apology to Hun Sen over his actions related to a disputed portion of the border between Cambodia and Vietnam.

Hong Sok Hour, who suffers from hypertension and cardiac disease, was freed from prison shortly after his pardon was announced, and expressed gratitude that he would be able to seek treatment for his illnesses.

The lawmaker suggested it was mere “coincidence” that his release after more than two years in jail came on the same day that the king signed the electoral amendments into law, and said he was glad to be free after expressing remorse to Hun Sen in a letter facilitated by his lawyer.

“I wrote to the prime minster that I sincerely regretted using a fake document in the debate over the disputed Cambodia-Vietnam border,” he said.

In November last year, Hong Sok Hour was found guilty of forging and publishing public documents and of incitement to cause instability, when he posted a disputed copy of a 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam treaty on Facebook that said the two countries had agreed to dissolve their mutual border. He was sentenced to seven years in jail.

Months earlier, Hun Sen had ordered police to arrest anyone accusing the government of using “fake” maps to cede national territory to Vietnam, which invaded and occupied Cambodia in 1979 to overthrow the rule of the Khmer Rouge.

Hong Sok Hour had been held at Prey Sar Prison since his arrest on Aug. 15, 2015.

Reported by Zakariya Tin and Sarada Taing for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.