Updated at 6:00 p.m. EST on 2012-10-3
The Cambodian government has given official approval for a merger of two key opposition parties with exiled leader Sam Rainsy as its head, officials said Tuesday.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng in a statement signed Friday approved the merger between Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and the Human Rights Party (HRP).
The merged entity, known as the National Salvation Party (NSP), is to spearhead the opposition challenge against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the July 2013 general elections.
The government decision to approve the merger drew an immediate response on Tuesday from Sam Rainsy, who pledged to return from exile to run as a candidate for prime minister in next year’s elections.
Sam Rainsy, who currently lives in France, faces a total of 11 years in prison on convictions of incitement, damaging property during a border protest, and defamation.
“Article One registers the National Salvation Party with the Ministry of Interior’s political parties list,” the Interior Minister’s statement said, adding that Sam Rainsy had requested the registration and would lead the party.
The ministry also instructed local authorities at all levels to recognize the political legitimacy of the NSP.
Sam Rainsy on Tuesday told supporters via video conference at the NSP headquarters in Phnom Penh that he would “return to Cambodia to lead the political campaign ahead of the 2013 election.”
He suggested the government would allow him to enter the country without conditions.
“Please wait and see what political changes will occur. Only then will the world understand the real situation in Cambodia,” Sam Rainsy said, adding that his conviction was “politically motivated” and the result of “government influence.”
Cambodian Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan refused to comment on Sam Rainsy’s claim, but said the judiciary would rule on whether to arrest the exiled opposition leader if he returns to the country, adding that any decision would be independent of the government.
“This is the court’s job. We will work according to the court’s decision,” he said.
The Associated Press quoted government spokesman Keo Remy as saying Tuesday that if Sam Rainsy comes back, he will be arrested and sent to prison.
“He has to be responsible before the law,” Keo Remy said.
Rights groups have accused Hun Sen—the longest serving leader in Southeast Asia—of suppressing dissent and intimidating political opponents. He has ruled Cambodia since 1985 and in 2009 said he would continue to stand as a candidate until 2023.
The CPP holds 90 of Cambodia’s 123 parliamentary seats, while the SRP holds 26 and the HRP three.
Approval of the NSP’s registration came as opposition leader Mu Sochua, an SRP parliamentarian and member of the NSP, prepares to travel to Washington where she wants to petition U.S. President Barack Obama to push for Cambodian electoral reform.
Mu Sochua said that she had gathered around 1,000 thumbprints in support of an appeal to Obama requiring Cambodia to reform its National Election Committee (NEC) before he attends the East Asia Summit, hosted in Phnom Penh in November.
“He must set conditions before his arrival,” she said.
“We want the government to reform the NEC and we want fair competition between the opposition and the ruling party.”
The NEC has been accused by rights groups and opposition parties of bias toward the CPP. They have called for independent members on the committee, whose headquarters is situated in the Ministry of the Interior compound.
Mu Sochua said that the 2013 election would not be regarded as free and fair if there is no reform of the NEC and if Sam Rainsy is not permitted to participate in the polls.
She said she would submit the petition to the U.S. State Department when she travels to Washington on Oct. 10.
Council of Ministers spokesman Keo Remy called Mu Sochua’s request to Obama an “insult” to the country.
“The opposition acts as a foreign puppet,” he said.
Some analysts say Hun Sen is moving rapidly to muzzle dissent ahead of the elections.
On Monday, dissident Cambodian radio station chief Mam Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly masterminding a secessionist plot, in a conviction condemned as politically motivated by rights groups.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the ruling was the worst decision by a Cambodian court in two decades and that the charges against the 71-year-old Mam Sonando were intended as political retaliation by Hun Sen for allowing critical views of the government on his independent radio station.
The New York-based rights group called on Cambodia’s donor countries—which in 2010 provided the country with U.S. $1.1 billion, or nearly half of its annual budget—to pressure Phnom Penh to release Mam Sonando and other activists who have spoken out against the government.
“Cambodia’s donors, including the United States, European Union, Japan, and the United Nations, should insist on the immediate release of prominent critic of the government Mam Sonando and other activists convicted on trumped-up charges,” HRW said.
Hun Sen had insinuated in a nationally broadcast speech before his arrest that Mam Sonando should be taken into custody for having led a "secession" plot and attempting to establish "a state within a state."
HRW said the conviction and sentencing of Sonando “without a sliver of evidence” proved that the Cambodian court system lacks independence from the government.
“Cambodia’s courts are so politicized they might as well hold the proceedings in Hun Sen’s house,” said HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams.
HRW called on donors to end its “business as usual” approach to relations with the Cambodian government. An annual donors meeting with the government last week addressed transparency in aid distribution, but did not set conditions based on Cambodia’s human rights situation.
“These latest convictions call into question whether Cambodia should host November’s East Asia Summit,” Adams said.
“President Barack Obama and other world leaders should insist that unless these and other baseless convictions are overturned, including that of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, they will call for the summit to be moved to another ASEAN country.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Sam Rainsy faces 10 years in prison. The opposition leader faces a total of 11 years on three separate convictions.