Cambodia’s acting head of state signed into effect a controversial new amendment to the country’s Law on Political Parties Friday, as international and domestic nongovernmental organizations slammed the legislation they said will undermine the democratic process ahead of general elections set for next year.
The amendment—proposed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and adopted on July 10 by its members of parliament amid a boycott by opposition lawmakers—bans parties from associating with or using the voice, image, or written documents of anyone convicted of a criminal offense.
Political parties found in violation of the amendment could be banned from political activities for up to five years and prohibited from competing in elections, or even dissolved.
It was approved by Cambodia’s Constitutional Council earlier this week and signed into effect on Friday in a state of “urgency” by Senate President Say Chhum, the acting head of state in the absence of King Norodom Sihamoni, who is in China for a health checkup.
The changes to the law effectively cut off ties between the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and its former president Sam Rainsy, who 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.
The ex-CNRP chief’s image appears on CNRP billboards throughout Cambodia and he regularly speaks at opposition events via Skype.
King Sihamoni was also out of the country in March, when an earlier CPP-proposed amendment to the Law on Political Parties was approved amid a boycott of parliament by opposition lawmakers, banning convicted criminals from holding a leadership position in a party and forcing Sam Rainsy to resign as president of the CNRP. The opposition leadership was taken up by his deputy Kem Sokha.
The former CNRP chief earlier this month 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.”
Following the enactment of the new amendment on Friday, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan dismissed CNRP claims that the law was intended to handicap the opposition ahead of a general election scheduled for July next year.
“They can say whatever they want, but it isn’t true that the government is doing this to pressure any political party,” he said.
Ahead of the amendment’s signing into effect, a group of Cambodian civil society organizations (CSOs) issued a statement Friday expressing “serious concerns” about the law amid what they called a “typically rushed legislative process.”
The CSOs—which included the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, ADHOC, and the Committee for Free and Fair Election in Cambodia (COMFREL)—condemned the amendment for being rushed into law “without any meaningful consultation,” denying the public the right to participate.
“We are deeply concerned that the exceptionally broad and overreaching powers granted to the Royal Government of Cambodia under the proposed amendment would subvert Cambodian democracy, and violate multiple provisions of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, as well as Cambodia’s binding international human rights obligations,” the statement said.
The CSOs said that attempts to raise their concerns with both the Senate and the Constitutional Council over the past week were rejected on procedural grounds, which they termed “an affront to the principle of inclusive, transparent and participatory democracy” that further highlighted deficiencies in the legislative process.
They called the legislation a “fundamental threat” to Cambodia’s liberal multi-party democracy as envisioned in the country’s constitution and said that, alongside the earlier amendment to the Law on Political Parties, it would significantly expand the government’s power to dissolve any political party “on the basis of exceptionally vague and subjective criteria.”
“In essence, the proposed amendment would provide the ruling party with the power and pretext to suspend democracy itself,” the statement said, adding that the CSOs were “gravely concerned” about the future of the country’s political situation.
“If these amendments are adopted and its provisions implemented, they would represent an existential threat to multi-party democracy in Cambodia; would have a severe chilling effect on the ability of all political parties to campaign freely and on an equal footing; and as a result would seriously call into question whether the July 2018 national elections could be considered free, fair and legitimate.”
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Friday, Brad Adams, executive director of HRW’s Asian division called on “every member of the Constitutional Council who voted to approve this law [to] resign immediately,” saying they had failed to uphold the constitution, which guarantees Cambodians the right to freedom of expression and association.
“The constitution itself says that Cambodia is a liberal democracy,” he said.
“A liberal democracy does not ban the leader of the opposition from participating in an election. So the constitutional council members who voted for this should have the courage and self-respect to simply resign, instead of participating in this kind of charade.”
Adams said he knew of no law in any country that bans individuals from participating in an election, being spoken about, and having their images put on poster.
“So Cambodia is setting a new world precedent,” he said.
“Hun Sen should be very proud to be the least democratic leader in the world by banning every reference to Sam Rainsy. And it just shows that he’s scared.”
He suggested that if the CNRP was in power and had Hun Sen banned, the CPP “would be screaming that it was anti-democratic.”
Adams anticipated that the international community will “react very strongly” to the new legislation, including with sanctions that would “hurt Cambodia’s economy significantly” through loss of investment and decreases in foreign aid.
He said that the CNRP essentially has two choices ahead of next year’s ballot—both of which carry political risk.
“They defy Hun Sen and he will use this new law to make their party illegal and dissolve it, and therefore they won’t be able to participate in the next election, or they follow the law believing that Hun Sen is so unpopular that even while following the law they will win the next election,” he said.
“One thing I would predict though is that, if they do go along with the law, there is still a risk Hun Sen will find some other reason to get rid of the party or to get rid of the leader of the party, who is now Kem Sokha,” he added.
“So it would not surprise me if, before next July, Kem Sokha is charged with some kind of crime, or a law is passed to ban him, or the CPP finds some kind of excuse to ban the CNRP in spite of the fact that the CNRP is complying with this illegal law.”
Reported by Savi Khorn for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.