Cambodia approved a controversial amendment to an electoral law Monday at a parliamentary session boycotted by opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmakers, effectively cutting off ties between the CNRP and its former chief Sam Rainsy ahead of a general election scheduled for next year.
The amendment to the Law on Political Parties—proposed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and adopted with votes in favor by 65 of its 66 present members of parliament—bans parties from associating with or using the voice, image, or written documents of anyone convicted of a criminal offense.
All 55 CNRP lawmakers boycotted the voting session on the grounds that the proposed changes were part of a bid to “suppress” political parties and potential challengers to the ruling party, which the opposition said in a statement went against the principles of rule of law and a pluralist democracy, as guaranteed by the constitution.
Article 44(2) also prevents 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.
During the debate on the amendment in parliament, ahead of Monday’s vote, Hun Sen’s son and CPP lawmaker Hun Many said that the new amendment would force Cambodian politicians to compete with one another “on the basis of national interests and maintaining peace,” and did not target any one individual.
“On this basis, should there be any violations against the stipulated clauses of the statute, I hereby request its effective enforcement so as to protect peace, the nation, stability, and national interests,” he said.
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, but his image appears on CNRP billboards throughout Cambodia and he regularly speaks at opposition events via Skype.
The CPP won last month’s commune elections, but the CNRP received nearly 44 percent of all votes to the ruling party’s 51 percent.
‘Anti-Sam Rainsy Law’
In a statement issued Monday, the former CNRP leader condemned the adoption of the “Anti-Sam Rainsy Law” by a “rubber-stamp parliament” and called the move to eliminate him from Cambodia’s political arena “useless, futile and counterproductive.”
Sam Rainsy said he was “honored to be Hun Sen’s constant obsession,” but recommended that the prime minister “better use his time and energy to—among other things—push for the adoption of really useful laws aimed at putting things right in a country that is just upside down.”
“There is not only one Sam Rainsy, but there are millions of Sam Rainsys in Cambodia, in that any Cambodian citizen who loves his or her country and wants to fight for freedom and justice, can be named Sam Rainsy,” he said.
Cambodian political analyst Chan Vibol told RFA’s Khmer Service that those who proposed the amendment fear democratic competition, and by doing so have made it clear to voters that they need to choose a leader in next year’s general election who will protect their democratic rights.
“There are three developments I’ve noticed [as a result of this process],” Chan Vibol said.
“First, the value of the National Assembly [parliament] is seriously lowering. Second, the drafters of the law fear democratic competition. And third, it affects the spirit of the constitution, a number of national and international laws related to granting freedom of expression, and political participation,” he said.
“Even a convicted criminal should enjoy the right to express his or her own ideas.”
While the new amendment was adopted in the National Assembly Monday, it must now be approved by the Senate and the Constitutional Council—widely seen as formalities—before being signed into law by King Norodom Sihamoni.
Reported by Thai Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.