Five former officials from Cambodia’s banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party on Monday defended their decision to seek political rehabilitation with the government, saying they were trying to keep the country’s trade privileges from being withdrawn by Western countries over anti-democratic actions by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The five former senior CNRP officials, who applied for rehabilitation on March 18 and received it a day later, had come under fire from the party and the public, even receiving accusations that they received money from the government for defying party policy.
CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 for alleged acts of “treason” and the Supreme Court ordered the party’s dissolution two months later, which paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in a July 2018 general election.
The Supreme Court also slapped a five-year ban on the political activities of 118 CNRP senior officials for the party’s role in an alleged plot to topple the government.
In December last year, Hun Sen’s Constitutional Council unanimously approved an amendment to the draft law on political parties, paving the way for the reinstatement of rights to the 118 CNRP officials banned from politics by the Supreme Court’s decision.
The legislation does not provide for the reestablishment of the CNRP, and Hun Sen has said the political rights of the officials will only be reinstated on an individual basis if they had “shown respect for the Supreme Court’s ruling,” and provided they each make an individual request.
On March 18, Former CNRP lawmakers Ou Chanroth, Kang Kimhak and Chiv Kata, and former CNRP board of directors members Tep Sothy and Chan Seyla applied for rehabilitation to the Ministry of Interior and received it by royal decree on March 19.
“I want to confirm that our decisions are not related to any buyout, incentives, or anyone’s encouragement. It is purely our own free will and decision in regard to contributing to seeking a solution for the nation,” Ou Chanroth told a news conference on Monday.
“Our stance remain the same: We are still demanding Kem Sokha’s release and his political rehabilitation so that he may return to politics.” he said.
He said he and the other four CNRP former officials made the decision to seek rehabilitation in order to ease political tension and avoid Cambodia from losing European Union and U.S. trade privileges.
“This is an issue that we as Khmers need to resolve among one another. If we as Khmers are still not talking to each other or negotiate in order to determine our nation’s future, no international community can help decide on our behalf,” added Ou Chanroth.
Former CNRP MP Tep Sothy told the same news conference: “I don’t want to see any blame or insults, since it is not a solution.”
“We are simply using our rights to show the international community, the government, and other politicians good practices for the future.”
However, Rong Chhun, a former member of National Election Committee, said the move by the five “will further weaken the CNRP.”
“Each of them only knows how to defect and yet fail to unite. They are boastful to claim that they are influential while they are only four to five people,” he said.
Hun Sen meanwhile accused Kem Sokha of trying to block his subordinates in the CNRP from further applying for political rehabilitation.
“A guy is still under house arrest, yet turns to warn others not to apply for political rights rehabilitation,” he said at a commencement ceremony on Monday. “
I will not let you get away with this. Once your case is sentenced by the court, I will not let you get away with it,” said Hun Sen.
One of Kem Sokha’s lawyers wrote on Facebook Monday that he had neither “prohibited nor warned” CNRP officials against seeking political rehabilitation.
The warning from Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 33 years, underscored that Kem Sokh’a case was politically motivated, said Rong Chhun.
“I commend his courage even if he is still under house arrest. He still has strong spirit, calling for his subordinates not to apply for political rights rehabilitation,” he told RFA.
Acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who has been living in self-imposed exile since November 2015 to avoid a string of what he says are politically motivated convictions, has urged the CNRP to refrain from appealing for political rehabilitation, and said those who do will be branded “traitors.”
Sam Rainsy, who has said he intends to return to Cambodia in 2019, must not return by land, Hun Sen aid in the commencement speech Monday.
“You are proud to claim that when you return there will be UN officials or foreign officials coming to escort you,” he said.
“It will be good to see if you dare come by crossing a land border. You should know what we do at the border: We build trenches equipped with machine guns,” said Hun Sen.
“You should know that, if you cross our land border, you will be in big trouble,” added Hun Sen.
Hun Sen’s crackdown has put at risk a European Union trade scheme called Everything but Arms, which allows ''vulnerable developing countries'' to pay fewer or no duties on all their exports to the bloc.
The EU decided in February to launch a six-month monitoring period to determine whether Cambodian exports should continue to enjoy tax-free entry into the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.
The EU trade measure, and a similar one proposed by the U.S. Congress, was motivated by the September 2017 arrest of Kem Sokha.
After a mission to Cambodia last week, the EU issued a statement on March 22 saying members “hope to see sustained and concrete progress in all areas of concern under the EBA engagement and look to Cambodia to urgently take actions needed in order to keep benefiting from the EBA preferential tariffs.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.