The exiled former head of Cambodia’s opposition party on Friday urged the international community to help ensure free and fair elections in his country, saying Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government is seeking to eliminate its competition ahead of polls later this year.
In an opinion article in the Phnom Penh Post, Sam Rainsy, who resigned as longstanding Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president last month, described an “atmosphere of fear and intimidation” facing the opposition as it prepares for commune and general elections set for June 2017 and July 2018, respectively.
“We know the upcoming elections cannot and will not be free with the current atmosphere of fear and intimidation, as evidenced by the increasing number of arrests and imprisonments of government critics,” said the former opposition leader.
“Please help ensure, at least, that the elections are fair enough to include the participation of the only opposition party represented in Parliament: the CNRP,” he said.
“Under fallacious pretexts, the government of Hun Sen—whose ruling party has dominated Cambodia’s political landscape for 38 years—is seeking to dissolve the CNRP in order to avoid electoral competition.”
Sam Rainsy has been in exile since late 2015 after his conviction on charges of defamation that supporters say were questionable rulings by a court system beholden to Hun Sen.
He resigned as CNRP chief in February in order to preserve the party in the face of a new law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party.
The law, which was approved by the National Assembly on Feb. 20, passed with 66 votes by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), despite a CNRP boycott of parliament in protest. The law is expected to be signed for final approval early next week.
The CNRP has meanwhile named acting leader Kem Sokha as party president. The party also named Eng Chhai Eang, Mu Sochau and Pol Ham as vice presidents.
On Friday, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann told RFA’s Khmer Service that the CPP seeks to prevent the opposition from standing in the country’s upcoming elections by adopting the political party law.
“This new law is narrowing the activities of political parties, instead of making it easier for them to do things like participate in the election,” he said.
But ruling party spokesman Sok Eysan told RFA that the CPP “has no intention of dissolving political parties” and said the government was working to ensure a smooth election process ahead of the two polls.
He dismissed Sam Rainsy’s appeal as “meaningless” because the former opposition leader is no longer head of the CNRP.“Sam Rainsy’s only concern is self-promotion because he doesn’t want the public to forget him,” Sok Eysan said.
“He is adrift in the ocean and there is no way for him to return to his party, which has found a new president, so ‘bye bye’ to Sam Rainsy.”
Amid the back and forth, head of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) Kul Panha reminded all stakeholders Friday that the Paris Peace Accords of Oct. 23, 1991—which ended the Cambodian-Vietnamese War—guarantees all parties the right to freely compete in Cambodia’s elections according to democratic principles.
But despite this provision, the opposition remains wary.
A version of the new political party law approved earlier this week by Cambodia’s Senate contained an amended Article 44, which allows the state to dismantle any political parties deemed “secessionist or subversive”—a provision ordered by Hun Sen.
Hun Sen last week warned that he would deploy the military against any political party seeking to “overthrow” his government.
Reported by Vuthy Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the National Assembly approved the bill on Feb. 20 with 44 votes by the CPP.