A senior official from Cambodia’s recently dissolved opposition party on Monday rejected a suggestion by the country’s prime minister to “form a new political party” ahead of upcoming elections, calling it a tactic meant to “defuse international pressure” over ongoing restrictions on democracy.
In November, Cambodia’s Supreme Court disbanded the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and barred 118 of its officials from politics for five years for the party’s involvement in an alleged plot to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. CNRP President Kem Sokha has been in pre-trial detention since his arrest in September on charges of “treason.”
While speaking to garment workers in the capital Phnom Penh on Sunday, Hun Sen said that CNRP officials who are not banned from politics should give up hope that the party will be reinstated, and instead form their own party to take part in a general ballot scheduled for July 2018.
On Monday, CNRP deputy president Eng Chhay Eang, who is living in self-imposed exile, dismissed Hun Sen’s recommendation, saying the prime minister was attempting to legitimize next year’s elections amid mounting international criticism over his government’s targeting of the opposition and a months-long crackdown on NGOs and the media.
“This political tactic is nothing but a way to defuse international pressure,” Eng Chhay Eang wrote in a post on his Facebook account, adding that CNRP officials would “never form a new party.”
“After he has arrested our president Kem Sokha and dissolved our party, he now offers us a roadmap he wants us to follow. However, we are not going to walk the way Hun Sen wishes us to. If we follow his suggestion, Cambodia will be internationally isolated, and Cambodians will live in poverty and fear.”
Last week, the U.S. and EU said they plan to compile lists of individuals who spearheaded the dissolution of the opposition and other rights violations in Cambodia, with a view of leveling sanctions against them, and have pledged to review trade agreements with the country.
Both the U.S. and EU have also announced that they are withdrawing funding of the election next year, and Washington recently placed visa restrictions on “individuals responsible for undermining Cambodian democracy” in response to the arrest of Kem Sokha and the dissolution of the CNRP. Hun Sen said over the weekend that he will reciprocate with a visa ban on U.S. officials if Washington doesn’t lift its restrictions.
Eng Chhay Eang said Monday that rather than following Hun Sen’s advice, his party plans to focus on “getting the court ruling on the dissolution of the CNRP reversed; getting Kem Sokha and other political prisoners released; [and] getting charges against opposition politicians, civil society groups, and members of the media dropped.”
Additionally, he said, the CNRP will work towards “ensuring civil society organizations and the independent media can function fully and freely, and holding free and fair elections in 2018.”
“The road we will travel will bring Cambodia and our people to stability, peace and genuine development, and result in an election that will be recognized by the international community,” he said.
In another speech delivered to garment workers on Monday, Hun Sen maintained that the CNRP “will never be reborn” and advised opposition officials to “return to your previous parties and join our next election,” referring to the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and Human Rights Party (HRP), which merged to formed the CNRP ahead of Cambodia’s 2013 ballot.
“There are several other parties that will take part in the election—those parties have benefited from the dissolution of the CNRP,” he said, adding that the vote will go on with or without their participation.
At the end of last month, the National Assembly reallocated the CNRP’s parliamentary seats to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and three government-aligned political parties, while the CNRP’s elected local officials have been pressured to defect to the CPP or lose their positions. CNRP officials who do not declare their assets within 30 days of leaving office risk imprisonment.
The significant gains made by the CNRP in recent elections pointed to the likelihood of a strong showing in next year’s ballots, but observers have said that with the party’s dissolution, Hun Sen effectively no longer faces any competition in 2018, and have called into question the legitimacy of upcoming votes.
Appeal to armed forces
Also on Monday, former CNRP President Sam Rainsy—who has been living in self-imposed exile since 2015 to avoid convictions on charges widely seen as politically motivated—reiterated an earlier call for Cambodians to stand up in peaceful protest against Hun Sen’s government, which he accused of holding them “hostage,” and again appealed to Cambodia’s armed forces not to fire on demonstrators.
“The Cambodian people must not allow Hun Sen to hold them hostage and to blackmail the donor community,” said Sam Rainsy, who resigned in February this year in a bid to preserve the CNRP in the face of a law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party.
“They must stand up to push for a democratic change and get rid of an anachronistic dictator through a real and credible election with the participation of the CNRP,” he said.
“I again appeal to the armed forces to stand by the people and to refrain from shooting and killing innocent citizens who peacefully demand freedom and justice.”
“Unprecedented international sanctions” will make the Hun Sen regime “collapse” if it does not reverse the ongoing crackdown, Sam Rainsy said, adding that the government is growing increasingly desperate.
In November, Hun Sen lashed out at CNRP supporters who held peaceful protests against election results in late 2013 and early 2014, accusing them of involvement in a “plot to overthrow the government” and saying he had only recently seen a video of the demonstrations that would have driven him to order the military to “execute” them, had he seen the clip at the time they were staged.
Sam Rainsy responded by telling supporters in Paris that he believes most soldiers in Cambodia “do not like Hun Sen” and that they need to know the prime minister’s “days are numbered,” urging them to “please disobey orders from any dictators who tell you to shoot and kill innocent people.”
A panel discussion organized by the U.S. and EU on the “Devolution of Democracy in Cambodia” is scheduled for Tuesday at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York.
Cambodia’s Permanent Mission to the U.N. registered its “strong protest” to the panel discussion in a statement on Monday, saying the event was “politically motivated with the clear intent to mislead international public opinion” and runs “counter to the principle of respect for sovereignty and non-interference.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.