If Prime Minister Hun Sen wins approval for an election law change that would effectively put an end to Cambodia’s major opposition party, its first victim will likely be a member of the country’s election monitor.
“It’s pointless for me to remain a referee in a game where there is an absence of a contender,” National Election Commission (NEC) member Rong Chhun told RFA’s Khmer Service today.
Rong Chhun, the former president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, told RFA that passage of the “culprit law” would lead to his resignation from the nine-member NEC that is charged with overseeing the nation’s elections.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party agreed to revamp the NEC as part of a 2014 deal that saw opposition lawmakers end their 10-month boycott of the National Assembly following the disputed national elections the year before.
While the CPP was declared the victor in 2013, the elections were widely seen as corrupt and they sparked widespread protests and allegations of government control of the NEC.
The NEC was revamped to ensure its neutrality, with each of the two major parties allowed to nominate four people for positions on the commission. The ninth member is supposed to be politically neutral. Rong Chhun was one of the CNRP’s four nominees.
While he was known as an outspoken advocate for workers’ rights as a union leader, he has taken his role on the NEC seriously and has seldom spoken with reporters.
Rong Chhun decided to break his silence after Hun Sen proposed an amendment to Cambodia’s law on political parties that would ban anyone who is convicted by Cambodian courts from becoming the president of that party.
The “culprit law” would also dissolve any party whose president is convicted of a crime.
Cambodia’s local elections are set for June 2017 and national elections are scheduled for 2018. In the disputed 2013 elections, the CPP lost 22 seats in its worst showing since 1998.
‘We shall get rid of the whole slate’
Hun Sen has said that the law needs to be changed to rid Cambodian politics of “any individual with culprit status.” On Feb. 2, he compared it to a defunct law in neighboring Thailand.
“Like in Thailand, when a political party was dissolved the whole political apparatus of that party was also disbanded,” Hun Sen said. “Its leaders were banned from politics for five years.”
He added: “We shall ban not just a few people, but we shall get rid of the whole slate so that they are deterred.”
Sam Kuntheamy, head of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections (NICFEC ) described Rong Chhun’s threat as a bad sign for the NEC.
“When he warns of his resignation it means he is not pleased with the push for the amendment of the law,” he said. “The NEC will face some issues itself if he resigns.”
Hun Sen is likely to prevail in the legislature as the ruling party has enough votes to amend the Law on Political Parties because it requires only a bare majority to succeed. This means Hun Sen has to get the votes of 63 lawmakers, and the ruling party holds 68 seats.
The proposal appeared to be aimed directly at Sam Rainsy, who is president of the CNRP and is Hun Sen’s most significant rival.
Cambodian courts are notorious for their lack of independence and are often used by the ruling party to punish dissidents and opposition party officials, and Sam Rainsy is no exception as he has been convicted in several court cases brought by members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Hun Sen.
Sam Rainsy has been living in France since 2015 to avoid arrest for a defamation case brought by former Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008.
In October, Hun Sen ordered police, immigration, and aviation authorities to "use all ways and means" to prevent the opposition leader from returning to the country, as Sam Rainsy has pledged to do before the country’s elections.
Unpopular with the people
While Hun Sen may have the votes in the National Assembly, the proposal was unpopular on the streets of the capital of Phnom Penh.
“It’s inappropriate for Hun Sen to threaten the opposition party like that. Instead of locking horns, political leaders should think about the national interests,” said one male villager.
Another man said Hun Sen was going too far.
“I don’t support his move. He is trying to consolidate his power,” he said. “I don’t think people will agree with Hun Sen’s move to get rid of the opposition.”
A female villager from Phnom Penh agreed. All spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.
“In any democratic country there must be an opposition party,” said the female. “A country develops when there is functional opposition party as a check and balance.”
She added: “The country will plunge into a state of authoritarianism if he gets rid of the opposition. I’m totally against such a move.”
Reported by Moniroth Morm and Thai Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.