A top-ranking member of Cambodia’s ruling party on Monday rejected allegations that a law pushed through parliament last week making it a crime to deny atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime was meant to target the deputy president of the country’s largest opposition party.
Chheang Vun, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Cambodia’s National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, said the legislation was not intended to “harm” Kem Sokha, deputy president of the new Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), ahead of elections next month.
“We want the media to understand that the Kem Sokha issue is unrelated to the law—we didn’t point our fingers at him,” Chheang Vun of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), told reporters at the National Assembly Monday.
His statement came as more than 10,000 people took to the streets a day earlier in what opposition members said was a rally staged by the ruling party against Kem Sokha for allegedly saying that a Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh had been faked by Vietnam.
The Cambodian pro-government media have in recent weeks carried remarks attributed to Kem Sokha saying that the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, also known as S-21, was not run by the Khmer Rouge and was instead an invention of the Vietnamese invaders who ousted the regime.
Both Kem Sokha and the CNRP have said his remarks were “twisted” out of context to weaken the opposition ahead of the July 28 national elections in which Hun Sen is seeking to extend his nearly three decades in power.
The law adopted by the National assembly on Friday bans statements denying crimes by the brutal 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, carrying a sentence of up to two years in jail.
It was hurriedly drafted by the government amid the controversy over comments about the Khmer Rouge allegedly made by Kem Sokha.
The law was pushed through on Friday with 86 lawmakers from the CPP and its ally the royalist Funcinpec party voting unanimously in its favor in the ruling party-dominated 123-member National Assembly.
Twenty-nine opposition party members could not attend the session as they were dismissed by the National Assembly’s CPP-run permanent committee for leaving their original parties—the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party—to form the CNRP coalition.
Two members of the disbanded Norodom Ranariddh Party who joined Funcinpec have also been sacked from the assembly.
The dismissal of the lawmakers drew criticism from Washington over the weekend, with the U.S. State Department saying the decision “starkly contradicts the spirit of a healthy democratic process.”
It urged the National Assembly leadership to “allow all elected members to fulfill their commitment to serve the Cambodian people.”
But Chheang Vun hit back at the United States on Monday, calling on U.S. Ambassador William Todd to inform the State Department that the National Assembly had refused to accept the statement.
“The statement ordered the [Cambodian] lawmakers to do as they wish, but we are independent [of the U.S.]. The assembly won’t take orders from anyone, so please reconsider the statement,” he said, adding that the legislative body had complied with Cambodian law in dismissing the members of parliament.
He said that the dismissed lawmakers, including former member of the Sam Rainsy Party Son Chhay, had absolved their right to take part in parliament after making the decision to leave their parties.
“[Member of parliament] Son Chhay … is a Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker but he joined the CNRP ... Article 15 of the political party law says he can only be recognized for one party.”
Son Chhay said Monday that he would file a complaint to Cambodia’s Constitutional Council to review whether the National Assembly’s action complies with the constitution.
“I am still legally a lawmaker. There is no law to expel members of parliament from their positions,” he said.
Meanwhile, Kem Sokha on Monday called the new law banning statements denying Khmer Rouge atrocities a “threat to the freedom of expression” and condemned the National Assembly for pushing it through without holding a fair referendum.
“The law passed without any debate from the opposition party,” he said.
“This law has a hidden agenda and serves to intimidate and threaten freedom of expression.”
The CNRP on Monday again denied that Kem Sokha had ever claimed that the atrocities in Tuol Sleng had been forged by the Vietnamese.
Kem Sokha has said that the audio clip of his comments was altered by detractors, and the CNRP says the campaign against him is politically motivated.
“The Cambodian National Rescue Party and Kem Sokha will make all efforts to bring justice to the victims and to prosecute the perpetrators [of the Tuol Sleng crimes],” the statement said.
Reported by Den Ayuthya and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.