Cambodia’s Opposition Condemns Efforts to Confiscate Parliament Seats

CNRP lawmakers say recently approved amendments are unconstitutional.

Supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party hold up a portrait of the party leader Kem Sokha near an appeals court in Phnom Penh, Sept. 26, 2017.

Cambodia’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Tuesday condemned a set of amendments that would end its representation in the National Assembly, calling them “unconstitutional” and calling for international intervention to reverse the legislation.

On Monday, the National Assembly, or parliament, approved four amendments to the country’s electoral law, paving the way for the 55 seats held by CNRP lawmakers to be redistributed to smaller government-aligned parties in the event that the opposition party is dissolved.

In a statement Tuesday, CNRP lawmakers—all of whom boycotted the session—called the approval by ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) members of parliament an “abuse of power … [and] the will of the people.”

The lawmakers dismissed the amendments as violations of Articles 51 and 76 of the constitution, which state that Cambodia’s citizens control the fate of their nation, and that members of parliament be elected through free, fair, and secret ballots.

They appealed to all national institutions with legislative authority to “review and consider the will of the Cambodian people, who respect the constitution as the supreme law of the land,” and urged the international community to reconsider its relationship with the country’s “illegitimate rulers.”

The statement asserted that, by boycotting the approval of the amendments, the CNRP’s lawmakers remained legal parliamentary representatives of the people, while opposition members elected in June’s commune ballot are also still operating in an official capacity.

Monday’s parliamentary session, which was attended by Prime Minister Hun Sen, involved no debate and took less than two hours to approve the amendments, which would see the royalist Funcinpec party take 41 seats from the opposition should the CNRP be outlawed ahead of a general election slated for next year.

According to the new laws, 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.

Cheam Yeap, a senior CPP member of parliament who represents the bloc of lawmakers that proposed the legislation, has said that the amendments were a byproduct of Cambodia’s electoral maturation process and not intended to target any one party.

On Tuesday, the National Assembly sent the approved amendments to Cambodia’s Senate Committee, which will review them over the next five days. The senate will send the amendments, with any proposed changes, back to parliament’s Constitutional Council which, after further review, will forward them on to King Norodom Sihamoni for final approval.

Earlier this month, Cambodian government lawyers submitted a petition to the country’s Supreme Court, asking that it formally dissolve the CNRP, and laying the groundwork for the amendments.

The move followed the Sept. 3 arrest of CNRP leader Kem Sokha in the capital Phnom Penh and formal accusations against him of collaborating with the U.S. to topple Cambodia’s government, in a move critics say shows Hun Sen is intensifying his attacks on political opponents ahead of national elections scheduled for July 2018.

Criticism of amendments

In a statement Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said that, if ratified, the amendments “would effectively disenfranchise the millions of people who voted for the CNRP in the 2013 and 2017 elections.”

“Genuine competition is essential to democracy and to the legitimacy of the 2018 national elections,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said.

"We urge government officials to consider the serious implications of their recent actions. We renew our call that the leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, be released from prison."

The amendments also drew condemnation from a consortium of indigenous ethnic groups in northeast Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province, which said in a statement Tuesday that the CPP was “jeopardizing unity” in the country.

Kreung Tola, a representative of the group, told RFA’s Khmer Service that if the CNRP’s seats are confiscated, it would amount to “robbing the people of their will.”

“The National Assembly of Cambodia is Ike a robber who violates the rule of law,” he said.

He warned that the country’s indigenous communities are considering a boycott of the 2018 election if the CNRP is dissolved.

Sok Ratha, a coordinator for the rights group Adhoc in Mondulkiri province, told RFA that amendments to Cambodia’s electoral law can only be carried out if doing so benefits the people and improves political participation for the country’s opposition parties.

“Legislative changes from a single-party vote in the National Assembly would be counter to the interests of the people and the entire nation,” he said, adding that the amendments “will undermine the democratic process ahead of the national election in 2018.”

San Chey, the executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability (ANSA), on Tuesday urged parliament to revise the amendments with greater attention paid to the concerns of the people, saying allowing them to be ratified in their current state would cause the international community to shun Cambodia.

“The rejection of the government’s legitimacy by the international community will cause great harm to us by [driving off] major donors and investment,” he said.

If powerful countries, such as the U.S., enact economic sanctions against Cambodia, it will have a devastating impact on the living conditions of the people, he added.

Military threats

Also on Tuesday, Cambodia’s defense minister Tea Bahn vowed to use the military to “smash any individuals who create social unrest” if the CNRP is dissolved, and said the country’s soldiers are prepared to “destroy anyone who dares to confront law enforcement,” according to local media reports.

Social commentator Meas Nee told RFA that Tea Bahn’s comments had hurt the moral standing of Cambodia’s military and lessened the people’s respect for the country’s Ministry of Defense.

“It is dangerous for Cambodia when the military is no longer independent,” he said, adding that soldiers have an obligation to protect national sovereignty and integrity.

“This could lead Cambodian politics into a very fragile situation.”

In May, ahead of Cambodia’s commune elections, Tea Banh warned that the army would “smash the teeth” of anyone protesting a win by the CPP and quickly suppress any opposition protests like those that followed the CNRP’s loss in national elections in 2013.

Failing health

Meanwhile, senior CNRP official Sam Sok Kong told RFA Tuesday that Kem Sokha’s health is “rapidly worsening” as a result of the unhygienic conditions of his jail cell in Tbong Khmum province’s remote Trapeang Phlong prison.

“His family has brought medicine for him, but the guards restrict medicine brought from outside,” he said, adding that Kem Sokha has also lacked access to proper health examinations.

The CNRP chief has been carefully monitoring developments on his party’s situation, despite his health concerns, Sam Sok Kong said, and believes the recently approved amendments are “unacceptable.”

“[Kem Sokha] said the amendments firstly abuse the people’s will, which is guaranteed protection in the constitution, and secondly violate the constitution, which is the supreme law of the land,” he said.

“Regarding dissolving the CNRP, Kem Sokha said he won’t need any lawyers, because the whole thing is politically motivated.”

Since Kem Sokha’s arrest, some 20 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.

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