Cambodia Senate Approves Tough Political Party Law Amid Rising Threats to Opposition

cambodia-law-02282017.jpg Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (front L) and other lawmakers voting during the parliament meeting at the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh, Feb. 20, 2017.

UPDATED at 11:19 A.M. EST on 2017-03-13

Cambodia's Senate on Tuesday voted to approve the controversial Political Parties Law giving Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government vast new powers over political parties as the nation heads into elections this year and in 2018.

The law, which was approved by the National Assembly on Feb. 20, passed with 66 votes by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), while  the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)  boycotted the parliament in protest, Senate secretary Um Sarith told reporters.

The passage, widely expected in the CPP-dominated Senate, clears the way for King Norodom Sihamoni to sign it into law and came as the beleaguered CNRP named acting leader Kem Sokha as party president. The party also named Eng Chhai Eang, Mu Sochau and Pol Ham as vice presidents, the CNRP said in a statement.

Kem Sokha's elevation to the party presidency follows the resignation earlier this month of longstanding CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who left his post in order to preserve the party in the face of the new law.

Among the features of the law is that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party. Sam Rainsy has been in exile since late 2015 after his conviction on charges of defamation that supporters say were questionable rulings by a court system beholden to Hun Sen.

The NGO Transparency International Cambodia published a survey of 1002 adults Tuesday showing that 59 percent of Cambodians surveyed said they think that "most or all" of the country's judges and magistrates are corrupt.  Police were thought to be most corrupt by 52 percent of respondents in the 2016 face-to-face survey, while the Prime Minister's Office was deemed the most corrupt by 41 percent, the group said.

Hun Sen had pushed the “culprit” provision to keep people who have been convicted of crimes from leading a political party. But critics say they give his government the legal power to eliminate any opposition.

The version of the bill approved on Tuesday by the Senate contained an amended Article 44 which allows the state to dismantle any political parties deemed as secessionist or subversive -- a provision ordered by Hun Sen, who has used recent public speeches to rail against alleged "color revolutions" aimed at overthrowing his 31-year rule.

"We won’t allow our country to go down like this. You must understand clearly that peace is very hard to find," he said in a speech in Kampong Cham province.

"Look at Libya, Syria and Iraq. What are the results in these countries?" said Hun Sen.

"If they want to kill Hun Sen or overthrow Hun Sen, what will happen next?" he asked.

Cambodia’s local elections are set for June and national elections are scheduled for 2018. In the disputed 2013 elections, the CPP lost 22 seats in its worst showing since 1998.

Reported by Sarada Taing, Sereyvuth Oung and Thai Tha for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Paul Eckert.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the National Assembly approved the bill on Feb. 20 with 44 votes by the CPP.


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