Cambodia’s Beehive Social Democratic Party (BSDP) has reelected its founder Mam Sonando as party president in the lead up to general elections widely seen as illegitimate, following the Supreme Court’s ruling to dissolve the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
In an extraordinary congress held Sunday in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district, with more than 300 party members from across the country in attendance, the BSDP named as its leader the former owner and director of Beehive Radio, who was living in self-imposed exile in France—where he holds dual citizenship—until his return to Cambodia last week.
The BSDP also elected Phat Sikan and Heang Kimsoeun as vice-presidents, and Lay Narin as the party’s secretary-general.
On Monday, Mam Sonando told RFA’s Khmer Service that he had decided to return to politics after the Supreme Court disbanded the CNRP in November for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, because he felt the need to “take hold of the democratic flag” in Cambodia.
“I cannot replace the CNRP, which is already dead, but I can replace those democrats and those Cambodians who love democracy,” he said, adding that “if the CNRP still existed, I would not have returned to the BSDP presidency.”
“My only ambition is to protect our citizens’ rights and freedom, and multiparty democracy in Cambodia. I will let our citizens judge whether to support me or not. It is their freedom of choice.”
In August, Mam Sonando, who is 76, resigned from his position as BSDP president after the party failed to secure a seat in the country’s June 4 commune elections. On Jan. 1, he additionally announced that he was withdrawing from politics and severing his ties to Beehive Radio, saying he believed that the younger generation deserved a chance to lead the country and that he was only interested in humanitarian work.
His decision to end political activity stemmed in part from a court summons issued in December, while he was in France, ordering him to testify at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Jan. 11 as a witness in the “treason” case against CNRP President Kem Sokha, who was arrested in September.
At the time, Mam Sonando, who has expressed criticism of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), said he would not return to Cambodia because he believed he would be arrested and jailed.
However, last week, he announced his intention to return to politics after Hun Sen encouraged him to lead his former party in the general elections set for July 29, and pledged that he would not be arrested if he came back.
On Monday, Mam Sonando claimed that Hun Sen’s promise had nothing to do with his decision to lead the BSDP.
“I want to underline that it is not about the fact that Hun Sen gave me a green light,” he said.
“Even without his green light, I would still have returned to politics.”
Analysts have warned that Mam Sonando’s decision to rejoin the political stage may provide legitimacy to the upcoming elections, which both the U.S. and EU have withdrawn funding for in response to the arrest of Kem Sokha and the dissolution of the CNRP.
In March 2013, an appeals court in Cambodia freed Mam Sonando from prison after serving eight months of a 20-year sentence for alleged involvement in a secessionist plot.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.