Cambodia's exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy has resigned from his party to head a united opposition front that wants to take on Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling party in 2013 elections, a party official said Wednesday.
The announcement was made as Sam Rainsy spoke via video conference to party supporters from Paris, a day after it was revealed that the government had officially approved the merger of two key opposition parties—his Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and the Human Rights Party (HRP).
The Interior Ministry had also endorsed Sam Rainsy as leader of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the merged entity.
SRP acting president Kong Kom told RFA's Khmer service that Sam Rainsy has submitted his resignation letter to him personally and that the party’s standing committee convened a meeting and accepted his resignation.
Sam Rainsy will officially announce the resignation at a party congress on Nov. 2, he said.
Kong Kom said he will be the sole candidate for party president.
While Sam Rainsy resigned from his party, other key officials from both parties who are also members of the National Assembly are holding back, as they could be disqualified from remaining in parliament if they follow suit.
The election law does not allow elected representatives to remain as MPs if they quit the party they ran under in the last polls and join another party.
Sam Rainsy, 63, was expelled from the National Assembly in March 2011 following his conviction for various offenses which he said were part of a campaign of political persecution by Hun Sen.
He vowed to return to Cambodia by the end of the year, but the government says he will be thrown in jail if he does.
He faces a total of 11 years in prison. He was sentenced to 10 years in absentia in 2010 for publishing a false map of the border with neighboring Vietnam, though the punishment was later reduced to seven years.
He was also handed a two-year sentence for inciting racial discrimination and uprooting border markings with Vietnam in a 2009 incident.
Last year, he was given another two-year jail term for accusing Cambodian's foreign minister of having been a member of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s.
Officials meanwhile said the SRP and HRP will continue functioning while the CNRP expands membership ahead of the elections.
Lawmakers from the two parties, including HRP President Kem Sokha, will join the CNRP when parliament is dissolved to pave the way for elections, they said.
Kem Sokha is to be the number two in the new party.
At the last parliamentary election in 2008, Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won 90 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly. The SRP took 26 seats and the HRP just three.
Rights groups have accused Hun Sen—the longest serving leader of any Southeast Asian country—of suppressing dissent and intimidating political opponents. He has ruled Cambodia since 1985, and in 2009 said he would continue to stand as a candidate until 2023.
Reported by RFA's Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun, Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.