New Law Puts Cambodia Opposition Party at Risk of Dissolution: Experts

cambodia-cnrp-banner-sept-2016-crop.jpg A CNRP banner depicting Sam Rainsy alongside Kem Sokha on display in Phnom Penh, Sept. 8, 2016.

Cambodia’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) must remove all images of its leadership from banners nationwide and cut all ties with its former party chief or risk being dissolved following the passage of a controversial amendment to the country’s electoral law, experts said Thursday.

The warning came as the CNRP said it was preparing to ask King Norodom Sihamoni to reject the changes to the Law on Political Parties recently passed by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) controlled parliament that bans it from associating with Sam Rainsy due to criminal convictions widely seen as politically motivated.

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service Thursday, political analyst So Chantha advised the CNRP to remove all banners throughout Cambodia depicting Sam Rainsy alongside current party president Kem Sokha and replace them with ones that simply display the party’s sunrise logo to avoid legal trouble when the new law goes into effect.

“By placing an image of any individual on the party banners—should that concerned individual be involved in any legal issue—the entire party is subject to dissolution,” he said.

So Chantha noted that with Kem Sokha still facing legal action in government-backed cases related to his alleged affair with a young hairdresser, even using photos of the party’s current president is risky.

“Kem Sokha still has lawsuits pending at the court,” he said.

“Hence, I think that if the party continues to display images of any individual on its [banners], similar problems may exist.”

New law

On Monday, Cambodia approved Article 44(2) at a session of the National Assembly, or parliament, boycotted by CNRP lawmakers—effectively severing ties between the party and 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 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 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.

Sok Sam Oeun, chief attorney at Amrin Law and Consultations Group, told RFA Thursday that based on the contents of the newly amended law, the CNRP and its officials must end all contact with Sam Rainsy, “both officially and privately.”

Opposition response

Responding to concerns over the party’s continued ties with Sam Rainsy, CNRP spokesperson and lawmaker Yim Sovann said the CNRP is “yet to consider this issue.”

“I will notify you later if the [party] makes any decision about this matter,” he said.

Yim Sovann also said he had no knowledge of a reported meeting recently held between a high-ranking CNRP delegation led by Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy in Hong Kong.

The CPP had also proposed an amendment to the Law on Political Parties which was approved amid a boycott of parliament by opposition lawmakers in February, banning convicted criminals from holding a leadership position in a party and 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 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.

Amendment status

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 Sihamoni.

CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San said Thursday that the newly amended law will be sent to the Senate’s Expert Commission on Friday, after which it will be forwarded to the Senate’s Permanent Committee. When the two bodies complete their reviews, a plenary session will be scheduled for Senate approval.

If the Senate passes the law and the Constitutional Council determines it to be in line with the constitution, the National Assembly will forward a final version to King Sihamoni for promulgation. The law can be enforced 90 days after it is approved by the King.

Sok Ey San was unable to confirm how long it would take for the new law to be implemented.

In a recent interview with Radio France International (RFI), CNRP vice-president Eng Chhay Eang said that all 55 opposition lawmakers plan to write a letter to King Sihamoni by Friday requesting him to reject the new legislation.

The February amendment of the Law on Political Parties was approved by Senate president Say Chhum, who had assumed the role of Acting Head of State while the King was in China for a medical examination.

Disappearing act

Brad Adams, executive director of HRW’s Asian division, called the CPP-led amendment an “attempt to make the opposition disappear” ahead of next year’s elections.

“The CPP and Hun Sen are absolutely scared to death of Sam Rainsy and the CNRP winning the next election,” he told RFA.

“They’ve probably done polling and realized that they will lose and they can’t think of any other way to hold onto power except to make Sam Rainsy disappear and become a non-person. But of course, that won’t work.”

Adams said that Sam Rainsy can continue to rally his supporters online, and that even if his name does not appear on next year’s ballot, the public knows that if they vote for the CNRP and the party wins, it would quickly repeal the amendment and permit the former party chief to rejoin.

He dismissed the amendment as a “pointless anti-democratic exercise” that would seriously damage the CPP’s image worldwide, and could call the legitimacy of a ruling party win in 2018 into question.

Furthermore, Adams said, if the CNRP is prohibited from participating in the general election because of the new law, “people won’t show up” at the polls.

“Governments have tried this in many countries around the world and it usually fails,” he said.

“This is usually the finish line for a dictatorial government, when it has to proceed like this, and it will undoubtedly blow up in the face of the CPP.”

Reported by Vuthy Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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