Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is stepping up the pressure on his chief political rival as he pushes the National Assembly to approve legislation preventing so-called “culprits” from heading a political party.
“It is necessary that we amend the Law on Political Parties by stipulating clearly that any individual with culprit status shall not be entitled to serve as president or vice-president of any political party,” he said in a floor speech at the National Assembly on Tuesday.
“I request that the National Assembly add this [clause] to strip them off their rights,” he added.
The change would remove Sam Rainsy from the top post of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) because he has been convicted in several court cases brought by members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Hun Sen.
Cambodian courts are notorious for their lack of independence and are often used by the ruling party to punish dissidents and opposition party officials.
Hun Sen is likely to prevail in the legislature as the ruling party has enough votes to amend the Law on Political Parties because it requires only a bare majority to succeed. This means Hun Sen has to get the votes of 63 lawmakers, and the ruling party holds 68 seats.
Hun Sen is also targeting property held by the CNRP lawmaker.
Opposition party headquarters targeted
Hun Sen told the National Assembly that he wants to confiscate the CNRP’s headquarters as a way of enforcing a judgement against Sam Rainsy in a lawsuit he has yet to win.
“I heard that the [CNRP] headquarters was registered in Sam Rainsy’s name, so let’s have his party’s headquarters sold at auction,” Hun Sen said in the speech. “He walks freely by fleeing his jail sentences. A lot of properties belong [to Sam Rainsy] including his plot[s] of land in Kompong Som province.”
In a $1 million lawsuit, Hun Sen has accused his political rival of defamation for remarks made during a Jan. 14 speech in Paris in which Sam Rainsy accused the Cambodian strongman of giving a $1 million bribe to rising opposition social media star Thy Sovantha to persuade her to switch loyalties.
Thy Sovantha had made a name for herself by attacking Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) through social media, but she abruptly changed her tune this year and began attacking Kem Sokha as the government engaged in a wide-ranging probe into a purported affair between him and a young hairdresser.
In December, Kem Sokha and provincial CNRP official Seang Chet were granted royal pardons in the case against the CNRP leader, but five other people accused in connection with the case remain in prison.
In his Jan. 14 remarks, Sam Rainsy, who was joined by Kem Sokha via Skype, talked about what he called the judicial double standard faced by the CNRP’s members and human rights workers who are jailed on charges over what amounted to a few hundred dollars.
Leaked phone messages allegedly show the prime minister’s second son Hun Manith – head of the military’s intelligence unit – conspiring with Thy Sovantha to discredit Kem Sokha, according to local media reports.
While Thy Sovantha filed a separate defamation lawsuit against Sam Rainsy that seeks $250,000 in damages, Sam Rainsy has been down this legal road before, as there have been at least six lawsuits filed against him by government or CPP figures.
In September he was found guilty of defamation for claiming that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s social medial team bought “likes” on Facebook from “click farms” abroad to increase the appearance of support.
And in December, he was sentenced to five years in prison in absentia for posting what authorities said was a fake government pledge to dissolve the Southeast Asian country's border with Vietnam.
Sam Rainsy has been living in France since 2015 to avoid arrest for a defamation case brought by former Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008.
In October, Hun Sen ordered police, immigration, and aviation authorities to "use all ways and means" to prevent the opposition leader from returning to the country, as Sam Rainsy has pledged to do before the country’s elections.
Cambodia’s local elections are set for June 2017 and national elections are scheduled for 2018. In the disputed 2013 elections, the CPP lost 22 seats in its worst showing since 1998.
Minority leader title stripped
Adopted in 1997, the Law on Political Parties consists of 11 Chapters with 45 articles, but it contains no language that lays out punishments for any individual with “culprit status.”
Age restrictions are the only limits the Cambodian constitution places on political office as it fails to mention “culprit status” preventing anyone from serving.
“A political party is the only institution which is entitled to solely choose its party president, and Mr. Sam Rainsy is our party president,” said CNRP Chief Whip Son Chhay.
The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL)’s Executive Director Koul Panha told RFA’s Khmer Service that the attempt to amend the Law on Political Parties was unfair.
“In a fair election environment, each party involved shall not be pressured by court orders, the armed forces or the National Assembly,” he said.
Tuesday’s move against “culprits” came after the National Assembly at the behest of Hun Sen stripped the minority leader title from CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha.
CNRP lawmakers boycotted the National Assembly session in protest.
Hun Sen keeps opposition in jail
Hun Sen also dashed hopes that two opposition lawmakers, Hong Sok Hour and Um Sam An, could be released from prison, telling the National Assembly they pose a danger to CPP members.
“I think these cases should not be touched because they are too serious and could pose a danger to [then] President of the State Council, Mr. Heng Samrin, who was accused of signing a deal to eliminate the border [between Vietnam and Cambodia],” he said. “It was not right.”
In November, Hong Sok Hour was found guilty of forging and publishing public documents and of incitement to cause instability, when he posted a disputed copy of a 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam treaty on Facebook that said the two countries had agreed to dissolve their mutual border.
Um Sam An was handed a two-and-a half year sentence in October for “inciting discrimination” and “inciting social instability” for posts on the lawmaker’s Facebook page accusing the CPP of failing to stop land encroachment by Vietnam and using improper maps to demarcate the border between the two former colonies of France.
Hun Sen had ordered police in April to arrest anyone accusing the government of using “fake” maps to cede national territory to Vietnam, which invaded and occupied Cambodia in 1979 to overthrow the rule of the Khmer Rouge.
Hun Sen also raised the Boeung Kak Lake case, and the case of the “Kem Sokha Five’” in his speech.
Hun Sen said he will use his prime minister’s privilege to decide if he will ask King Norodom Sihamoni for a pardon in the Boeung Kak Lake case, but he described the action of the activists there as a “riot.”
Land rights activist Tep Vanny was convicted on Sept. 19 of insulting and obstructing public officials and was sentenced to six months in prison in relation to a protest in November 2011 near Hun Sen’s residence.
She first gained prominence as an activist fighting the Boeung Kak Lake land grab, when some 3,500 families were evicted from the neighborhood surrounding the urban lake in Phnom Penh. The lake was later filled with sand to make way for a development project with close ties to Hun Sen and the CPP.
Seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents—is a major cause of protests in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Laos.
As for the “Kem Sokha Five,” the prime minister said he had to wait for the legal process to run its course.
“In accordance with the law, it takes two months for a judgment to be final,” he said. “We cannot request amnesty while the judgement is not yet entered into force.”
Lim Mony, Nay Vanda, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan—all workers for ADHOC (the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association—and National Election Commission (NEC) deputy secretary-general Ny Chakrya have been imprisoned since April.
They are accused of attempting to pay hush money to Kem Sokha’s purported mistress in the government’s wide-ranging probe into the alleged affair that many inside and outside of Cambodia see as politically motivated.
Cambodia is “not free”
Hun Sen’s moves come as the U.S.-based watchdog group Freedom House ranked Cambodia “Not Free” in its “Freedom in the World 2017” report. Cambodia clocked in at a 5.5 rating with one representing the greatest degree of freedom and 7 the smallest degree of freedom.
Spokesperson of the Office of the Council of Ministers Phay Siphan told RFA the report does not reflect reality.
“It is a report written by those reactionary cliques aiming at sabotaging Cambodia,” he said. “They arrange their people to create such reports to be used by their echoing tools, including Radio Free Asia.”
He added: “Had we taken proper measures, RFA would never exist here, because we know clearly that RFA is a tool for sabotaging the government.”
Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) Director Chak Sopheap took a different view.
“Citizens or civil society, in particular those [opposition political] analysts have always suffered from harassment, including being charged with criminal case of defamation,” she said.
Reported by Vuthy Tha, Sonorng Khe and Chandara Yang for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.