Three opposition members of Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) resigned from their posts Monday in protest of a court ruling to dissolve their party and recently adopted laws that will see its parliamentary seats and commune councilor positions reassigned to government-aligned parties.
Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) members Kuoy Bunroeun, Rong Chhun, and Te Manirong submitted letters of resignation to National Assembly president Heng Samrin expressing concern over the Supreme Court’s Nov. 16 decision to ban the party for its part in plotting a “coup” against the government, eliminating Prime Minister Hun Sen’s main competition ahead of an election next year.
CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested on Sept. 3 for allegedly collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and the court ruling found the opposition party guilty of involvement in the “conspiracy.”
The three NEC members also voiced frustration over recently amended electoral laws that will see the CNRP’s 55 seats in the National Assembly and more than 5,000 commune councilor positions won in local elections in June distributed to other minor political parties.
“We feel obliged to resign, for we would have betrayed our wisdom and conscience and acted against the will of the voters had we continued working with the NEC, given the recent developments,” the letters read.
“We do not wish to have a bad name in history.”
Since last week’s decision, the CNRP’s elected officials have been prevented from continuing their work, while authorities have removed billboards, flags and other opposition paraphernalia around the country.
The court ruling has drawn condemnation from governments and NGOs across the globe, who say it has compromised the legitimacy of general elections set for July 2018 and have urged Cambodia’s government to reverse an ongoing crackdown on the opposition, media, and civil society groups.
Kuoy Bunroeun, Rong Chhun, and Te Manirong had been nominated by the CNRP to the NEC as part of a post-election agreement between the opposition and CPP in 2014. With their departure, the body is left with six members: four nominees from the CPP, “neutral” member Hang Puthea, and CNRP nominee Hing Thirith, who has given no indication he intends to leave.
The Phnom Penh Post cited legal officer for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) Yoeurng Sotheara as saying that the departures had left the NEC without legitimacy, and calling into question the process of appointing new members to the electoral body.
In the face of criticism over his government’s actions in recent months, Hun Sen remained defiant, telling around 5,000 workers in Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich township Friday that he welcomed threats of sanctions and the withdrawal of aid—particularly from the U.S.
The prime minister said Cambodia is more than capable of surviving with assistance from China—one of the few countries to support his Southeast Asian nation following last week’s court ruling—and suggested that only those NGOs relying on U.S. funding would be affected by any punitive measures.
“I wholeheartedly welcome the U.S. to cut off its aid to the NEC—I really welcome that,” he said.
“You talk about democracy, yet you will cut aid to the NEC. You have not just failed to defeat me, but you have also involved yourself in killing democracy in Cambodia.”
Hun Sen went on to propose that the U.S. “cut off all aid to Cambodia entirely,” which he said would result in the “death of all local NGOs.”
“Go ahead and kill your own offspring … those who die first will be the NGOs that are plotting against us,” he said.
“We need to be defiant. We used to eat banana stumps and fought Pol Pot [during the Khmer Rouge regime], so we are not intimidated by such threats.”
The prime minister said that all NGOs in the country “will be audited soon” to determine how their funding is used, and that those found to be “spending money in Cambodia to destroy us … will not be spared.”
He also lashed out at CNRP supporters who held peaceful protests against election results in late 2013 and early 2014, accusing them of involvement in a “plot to overthrow the government” and saying he had only recently seen a video of the demonstrations that would have driven him to “execute” them, had he seen the clip at the time they were staged.
“You [protesters] are lucky [to be alive] because I didn't see the video clip back then,” he said.
“If I had seen it at that point, I would have order the killing of all of you in just a few hours. I would not have allowed you to protest. I view that as a moment of life or death, because you declared war.”
‘Irresponsible and dangerous’
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay told RFA’s Khmer Service that Hun Sen’s comments were “brutal” and “unbefitting of a leader.”
“On top of that, they were against the military code of conduct and our constitution. There is no provision for capital punishment in Cambodia’s constitution.”
Brad Adams, deputy director for New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told RFA the prime minister’s remarks amounted to a crime under Cambodian and international law, and were meant to incite violence.
“This is really an incredible thing for the head of a government, a prime minister, to say that he wants to murder his own citizens on the streets of Cambodia,” Adams said.
“It just goes to show that Hun Sen is not fit to be in office, he’s not fit to lead a country—he’s irresponsible and dangerous.”
Adams said that many people within Hun Sen’s own party, and among the police and military, “don’t like him” and do not want to be associated with the prime minister’s comments and actions.
“There’s a huge amount of resentment inside the CPP and I believe one day it is going to boil over,” he said.”
“He’s not allowing the public to make the decisions, and therefore it may turn out to be a decision made within the CPP against him.”
Richard Rogers, a partner at the London-based law firm Global Diligence who filed a 2014 complaint with the International Criminal Court in The Hague on behalf of Cambodian victims of land grabs, told RFA Hun Sen appears willing to “kill as many of his own people as it takes to crush opposition to his one-man rule.”
“These are not the words of a modern leader fit for the 21st century—these are the words of a despot dictator from last century,” Rogers said.
“These are the words of a leader who knows he must rule from fear because his people no longer like or respect him and he knows that, given the chance, the people will choose a new leader,” he added.
Rogers said that Hun Sen is caught in a “spiral of paranoia” and will soon be targeting his own supporters.
“We all know where this story ends up … Once he’s murdered enough opposition, once he’s silenced the democratic space, then he will start to kill his own people, and maybe his own family.”
Opposition in exile
Since Kem Sokha’s arrest, more than half of 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.
On Monday, Cheav Chiv, the head of the CNRP in Cambodia’s Battambang province, told RFA that around 40 party members had left the country since the Nov. 16 Supreme Court decision because local authorities were harassing them about defecting to the CPP.
“They had to flee in order to be avoid persecution and harassment by ruling party members,” he said.
“Everyone knows that there is no justice in Cambodia under Hun Sen. The courts are entirely influenced by the ruling party.”
Chak Butha, the CNRP chief of Prek Chik commune, in Battambang’s Rukhak Kiri district, said he had been repeatedly targeted by CPP members and local authorities as part of a bid to get him to defect.
“The ruling party people continue to try to lure me into joining them, saying I am a good man,” he said.
“I have told them that as long as I can still breathe, I will never join them.”
Meanwhile, around 400 Cambodians joined former CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who has been living in self-imposed exile since 2015 to avoid convictions many see as politically motivated, and exiled party lawmakers in Lowell, Massachusetts on Monday in protest of Hun Sen’s crackdown and to discuss the next steps for the opposition.
Sam Rainsy resigned in February in order to preserve the CNRP in the face of a law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party.
Also on Monday, members of the Cambodian diaspora in Europe delivered petitions signed by more than 1,600 people to the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, calling for the EU to level sanctions against Hun Sen’s government unless he frees Kem Sokha and ends restrictions on the opposition, media, and NGOs, in order to ensure free and fair elections next year.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.