PHNOM PENH: Criticism mounted on Monday (Oct 23) over the Cambodian government’s moves to remove its biggest political challenger in next year’s election.
More than 50 rights groups called on chairs of the Paris Peace Agreement to reconvene to ensure that the “democratic vision for Cambodia outlined in the agreement is not completely forsaken”.
On Friday, controversial draft amendments to the country`s electoral law passed through the senate without any changes. It means the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), a genuine contender in next year’s national election can be dissolved.
The open letter from the rights groups highlighted “violations” of the original agreement, which brought an end to conflict in the then war-ravaged country and spelled out legal obligations of future governments.
“The severity of this crackdown is unprecedented in the post-1991 era, and poses an existential threat to Cambodian democracy,” it read.
However, the Hun Sen-led government has paid little attention so far to any opposition -which has escalated in recent weeks - to its strategy following tight commune elections back in June.
Opposition leader Kem Sokha continues to wallow in prison after being arrested and charged with treason. Most of the party’s senior lawmakers have fled Cambodia in recent weeks, including party deputy Mu Sochua, after threats of arrest.
The Senate meantime has paved the way for 55 seats currently held by opposition lawmakers to be distributed to other parties if it was dissolved.
The move happened only four days after the National Assembly passed draft amendments on laws on the national election, election of senate members, commune council elections and on administrative management of the capitals, districts and provinces.
Earlier this month, Rhona Smith, the special rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, warned that civil and political rights in Cambodia were deteriorating rapidly, with deeply worrying implications for forthcoming elections and the future of democracy in the country.
"Modern Cambodia was established as a multi-party liberal democracy, respectful and protective of human rights," she told Radio Free Asia.
"Its constitution sought to prevent a return to a single-party state. Those who drafted the Constitution were all too well aware of the consequences of one-party rule."
The European Union, the United States and United Nations have all voiced their concerns over Kem Sokha’s arrest ahead of next year’s general election and recently, at its annual general assembly in the Russian city of St Petersburg on Oct 18, the IPU, a group of some 173 parliamentarians from around the world, also issued a statement expressing concerns about the dismantling of Cambodia’s opposition.
The IPU also urged Cambodian authorities to allow for the return of opposition MPs who have been forced into exile so that they could campaign freely in the rapidly approaching 2018 election.
Hun Sen, however, wants the CNRP members set to lose their positions to defect.
“I wish to inform all the CNRP’s commune chiefs, deputy commune chiefs or any CNRP members, if you want to save your jobs ... change your allegiance to the CPP,” he said in a speech to garment workers.
Local political analyst So Channtha said it is clear that Cambodia democracy is moving backward. “It is also a sign of the end of the big opposition party if these amendments are pushed forward and put into practice,” he said.
Channtha warned that this move would not only affect the opposition party but would also affect the image of the country and affect the legitimacy of national institutions, including the national assembly.
He said distributing the opposition seats to other parties would damage the standing of the ruling party in the eyes of voters. “I think it is a wrongdoing and against the people’s will,” he said.
“People will not give value to those parties that accept the seats. If this big opposition party was dissolved, it means creating enemies with its own people with about three million supporting the opposition party. Even if the opposition party was dissolved, many people that supported it will not come to support the ruling party.”
Fellow analyst Lao Mong Hay said there is a risk Cambodia falls to dictatorship if the constitution continues to be violated.
“It is unconstitutional. It betrays the will of people that voted for their parliamentarians,” he said. “People who voted for the CNRP cannot accept it. That will be difficult to control.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen said last week that after the CNRP was dissolved, there would be new opposition parties represented in the national assembly, consequently by his rationale, increasing the strength of opposition voices and the health of democracy in Cambodia. He added that authorities were on standby to crack down on any protests.
However, government spokesman Suos Yara rejected the criticisms, calling political analysts in the country who do not agree with the CPP “biased”.
“We just look and see whether or not they are real political scientists or economic scientists or have any specialised research field,” he said.
“There is no need to abuse our power and grab power from anyone. The government did what the law allows.
“The accusation against the Cambodian People’s Party is just for their own benefit and to help them to avoid taking responsibility for their serious mistake.”
He also rejected the claim that without the CNRP, the national election would not be free and fair.
FUNCINPEC, a royalist party that has fallen in political relevance in recent years is set to be the big winner in the national assembly shake-up. The party is believed to have struck a deal to receive 41 seats, after itself filing the court motion to dissolve the CNRP.
But party spokesman Nheb Bunchin said he would wait for a formal announcement from Hun Sen before commenting on its expected gains. However, he said FUNCINPEC would work to do more for the country than the CNRP managed in this latest cycle, in which opposition MPs have been harassed and disempowered.
“If we have seats like them, we will take these 55 seats and turn to work for serving our country,” Bunchin said.
CNRP parliamentarian Mao Monyvann expressed his disappointment, saying that the ruling party was pushing ahead with these amendments despite the effect it would have on the sentiments of the population.
“There is no benefit to Cambodians so politicians should turn back to talking and solve the problem,” he said.
“We were peacefully challenging through the election so we always stand ready to talk - Khmer to Khmer - for a political solution that will give benefit to our society.”
He said multi-party democracy needs to have parties with real strength to ensure a proper competition, and without the CNRP, there would be no contest left.