Cambodia’s opposition leader Sam Rainsy warned Friday that the arrest and detention of seven lawmakers from his party has deepened the country’s political crisis, accusing the government of waging a “brutal attempt to eliminate the opposition.”
He called on the international community to address the “deplorable” situation, saying the country’s democratization process guaranteed by the1991 U.N.-brokered deal that helped end decades of conflict has “completely derailed” and that the country had returned to a one-party system reminiscent of the immediate post-Khmer Rouge period and the Cold War era.
In his first statement since the arrest of the seven MP’s and another member from his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) following violent protests outside Freedom Park in the capital Phnom Penh on Tuesday, Sam Rainsy said the latest government action has worsened the political turmoil since the disputed July 2013 general elections.
The United Nation's human rights office, meanwhile, said in a statement Friday that it was “alarmed” at the arrests of the eight and “concerned about the very serious charges” brought against them, including "insurrection," which carries a prison sentence of up to 30 years. All of them have been denied bail and detained indefinitely pending trial.
“This most serious clampdown has deepened a political crisis whose gravity is unprecedented since the July 5-6, 1997 coup d’état,” Sam Rainsy said, referring to the bloody coup in which Hun Sen ousted prime minister Prince Ranariddh 17 years ago.
“It is time to properly address this deplorable situation for the sake of all the people of Cambodia and their friends," he said in his statement issued in Paris Friday before he headed home after cutting short his European trip.
Back to square one
Sam Rainsy referred to the 1991 agreements, saying 18 friendly countries, including all the world’s major powers, had committed themselves to ensuring that Cambodia follows a “system of liberal democracy, on the basis of pluralism.”
The country was supposed to move from a communist-type regime characterized by a one-party system towards a real and vibrant democracy following the organization of “free and fair elections,” he said.
“However, following the July 28, 2013 elections, which many independent observers have denounced as unfree and unfair, and following the increasingly brutal attempt to eliminate the opposition, Cambodia is—politically speaking—back to square one with the return to a one-party system reminiscent of the immediate post-Khmer Rouge period and the Cold War era,” he said.
Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was declared the victor in the 2013 elections despite allegations of fraud, leading to a CNRP boycott of the National Assembly, or parliament.
Freedom Park, the only place where protests were allowed in the capital, was ordered closed in January after it became a focal point for protests against Hun Sen’s rule in the wake of the disputed polls.
At least 40 people were injured in clashes on Tuesday between CNRP supporters and security personnel guarding Freedom Park after the guards tried to pull down a banner hung during protests by the opposition calling on the government to reopen the park.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it found no evidence to suggest that any of the arrested lawmakers had incited or participated in the violence.
During dozens of public gatherings and events the CNRP has held, party leaders have consistently espoused nonviolence, it said.
On Friday, two CNRP lawmakers Long Ry and Nut Rumduol, who were arrested a day earlier, were produced in court for questioning for about an hour before they were denied bail and sent to Prey Sar prison. About 200 party supporters protested in front of the court.
CPP lawmaker Chheang Von, who is also spokesman for the National Assembly, the country parliament, held a press conference blaming the CNRP lawmakers for provoking the violence on Tuesday.
He said that the violence in which many security guards were wounded was more serious than a January government crackdown on striking garment workers that left five dead.
“It was premeditated,” Chheang Von said. “They used sticks, rocks to attack security guards. It was inhumane and brutal,” he said.
The U.S. State Department on Friday called for the release of the opposition politicians and condemned the violence.
Sam Rainsy said that the government’s relentless crackdown on the opposition was a mockery of the Paris accords signed 23 years ago.
“The international community would lose its credibility if the Paris Agreements on Cambodia were to be continuously violated or completely ignored,” Sam Rainsy said.
Anniversary of return
His statement came exactly one year after his return to Cambodia at the end of four years of forced exile to avoid a 12-year jail sentence he says was politically motivated. He was not allowed to stand in the general elections last year but managed to lead the CNRP to its best performance in years, denying the CPP of its traditional two-thirds majority.
“Last year, my decision to return in spite of the pending jail sentence reflected my will to test the state of democracy in Cambodia in the campaign leading to the July 28, 2013 national elections,” he said.
“Today, I hope my return will help defuse the worryingly growing political tension, secure the release of all detainees allegedly linked to recent political violence, re-start negotiations aimed at breaking the current political deadlock, and begin a process of national reconciliation to bring peace and justice to the Cambodian people.”
The CNRP and CPP had been holding talks to break the political deadlock since the disputed polls but the discussions broke down after the CNRP demanded that all members of the country's election body should be endorsed by a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.