Lawmakers from Cambodia’s National Assembly met Thursday to discuss a proposed amendment that would ban the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from associating with its former leader Sam Rainsy if voted into law next week.
The amendment to the Law on Political Parties—proposed by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)—would ban parties from associating with or using the voice, image, or written documents of anyone convicted of a criminal offense, according to a copy of the proposed changes obtained by RFA’s Khmer Service.
Article 44(2) would also prevent parties from supporting or organizing plans with anyone to undertake “actions against the interest of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” and using a name or acronym that is similar to one used by another party.
Political parties found in violation of the proposed amendment could be banned from political activities for up to five years and prohibited from competing in elections, or even dissolved.
The amendment will be put forward for a vote by the 68 CPP lawmakers and 55 CNRP lawmakers that make up the National Assembly on July 10.
The CPP had proposed an amendment to the Law on Political Parties which was approved amid a boycott of parliament by opposition lawmakers in February that banned convicted criminals from holding a leadership position in a party, forcing Sam Rainsy to resign as president of the CNRP.
The former opposition chief has been living in self-imposed exile in France since November 2015 to avoid jail time for convictions widely seen as politically motivated and delivered by courts beholden to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
The latest proposal followed a speech by Hun Sen last week to mark the 66th anniversary of the founding of the CPP, during which he slammed Sam Rainsy for his daily Facebook videos criticizing the shortcomings of the ruling party from abroad.
Chheang Vun, a spokesman for the CPP’s National Assembly members, told reporters that the ruling party is determined to pass the proposed amendment at its earliest convenience.
He scolded opposition lawmaker Yem Ponhearith for saying recently that a photo of Sam Rainsy holding hands with current CNRP president Kem Sokha had helped the party make substantial gains in last month’s commune election, warning him that doing so will be a crime “when the amendment is passed.”
“That means the CNRP is colluding with a convict—it’s very serious and your words can be held against you,” he said.
“You have to be very careful. You have to study the laws before you speak. You can enjoy freedom of expression, but beware of its boundaries. Using Sam Rainsy’s image will be illegal and punishable.”
‘Ruled by law’
CNRP deputy president Eng Chhai Eang told reporters after Thursday’s meeting that the CPP intends to use the proposed amendment to “narrow the path” of the CNRP ahead of a general election scheduled for next year.
He dismissed the proposed changes as “a joke … in violation of the constitution,” and vowed that CNRP lawmakers will boycott next week’s vote on the amendment, which he called “useless” and “a waste of time.”
“No law has ever restricted the use of a voice or image of a convict for the interest of a political party,” he said.
“It is absurdly unprecedented that such a law, which is aimed at restricting the rights and freedom of the people, is being proposed now. It is clear now that Cambodia is ruled by law, not the rule of law. This [proposal] is nothing but an attempt to hold onto power and impose restrictions on the opposition.”
Eng Chhai Eang acknowledged that if the new law is adopted, the CNRP will be forced to comply and remove Sam Rainsy’s image from its posters or be dissolved.
But he warned that adoption of such a law would severely damage Cambodia’s image in the eyes of the international community.
“This law is unwelcome and strongly criticized—it will make Cambodia look bad,” he said.
“Nonetheless, the CNRP is determined to move forward with our goal of winning the upcoming [general] election. We won’t play the CPP’s game. We will stick to our objective, and when the CNRP wins the election, we will remove such laws.”
The Phnom Penh Post quoted political analyst Cham Bunthet as saying that the proposed amendment would worsen an already divisive and fragile political environment in Cambodia, and that he did not believe it would have the intended effect of sidelining Sam Rainsy.
“This will make Sam Rainsy more popular and make the situation in Cambodia even worse,” Bunthet told the Post, explaining that whatever credibility the former opposition leader had lost by fleeing arrest threats from Hun Sen would now be recouped with the government showing it feared him.
Reported by Savi Khorn for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.