PHNOM PENH: The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) remains optimistic about next year's general election, which it hopes will be free, fair and acceptable for all Cambodians despite its leader being locked up in jail for a treason charge, senior party member Son Chhay told reporters Tuesday (Sep 12).
“Our party will continue to strengthen democracy and fight hard through democratic means," he said. "We want to see positive change. So there is only one direction for us and that’s moving forwards, to the 2018 election."
He added: “We hope the international community and the people of Cambodia can help reverse the situation to allow a free and fair election next year."
Chhay's comment came a day after Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened to dissolve the CNRP if it continues to protect its leader Kem Sokha.
Following his midnight arrest on Sep 3, Sokha was brought to the Correctional Centre No 3 in the border province of Tbong Khmum near Vietnam, nearly 200km from the capital, before being charged with treason.
According to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, his crime is his involvement in an alleged conspiracy with a foreign power to undermine national security. The court did not clarify which foreign power it referred to, but government spokesperson Phay Siphan told Channel NewsAsia the conspiracy is between Sokha and the United States.
If convicted, Sokha could face up to 30 years in prison.
The sudden prosecution of CNRP’s president has provoked the international community to criticise Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) for what critics say is a politically motivated move against their main rival ahead of the national polls.
On Monday, the National Assembly voted to approve legal proceedings against Sokha – a session boycotted by the opposition.
While the CNRP claims its leader is a lawmaker and thus entitled to the parliamentary immunity, Prime Minister Hun said argued such immunity was “automatically lost” due to the red-handed nature of Sokha’s crime.
Under Cambodia’s law, authorities can arrest lawmakers despite their parliamentary immunity if they are caught in the act of committing an offence. However, Sokha was arrested at his home – an act his party described as “improper”.
"I believe the prime minister is also aware that anyone who has yet to be sentenced remains innocent," Chhay said in Tuesday’s press conference at the party’s headquarters.
"Yesterday, the National Assemble failed to establish a quorum. It required a quorum of a two-thirds majority to revoke Kem Sokha’s parliamentary immunity. So the decision [to continue his prosecution] is not legally correct."
"WE HAVE TO BE COMMITTED TO DEMOCRACY"
Still, there is hope. The opposition party believes the situation, as “complicated” as it is, can be reversed as it keeps pushing for a free and fair general election next year.
"There is still time to improve the situation in our country and to ensure the election in July 2018 will be acceptable as well as recognised by both Cambodians and the international community,” Chhay said. “We have to be committed to democracy and continue strengthening our national unity.”
During the press conference, the CNRP also expressed concern over Cambodia’s democracy due to certain political group’s unconstitutional actions. But it is determined to move forward.
“The party will walk towards the election in a fair competition," Chhay said. "We believe the situation won’t remain like this for long but will improve as we near the 2018 polls."
Meanwhile, the opposition party continues doing what it can to seek justice for its leader. It plans to submit a letter to the Justice Ministry on Tuesday to ask for clarification about Sokha’s alleged crime.
“Which exact words in the constitution allow the court system to arrest Kem Sokha? We have thoroughly examined it and haven't found anything." Chhay said. “We’ll decide what to do next once we hear their answer.”
As they wait, the opposition made it clear there will be no demonstration against Sokha’s arrest. Their supporters have been informed of the party’s stance.
“When you hold a demonstration, there will be clashes. So I support the party’s decision not to stage any demonstration because that could bring loss of lives among Cambodians,” 62-year-old CNRP supporter Khiev Din told Channel NewsAsia.
“Kem Sokha did nothing wrong. The charge against him is absolutely not right. If the election takes place without him, it seems we’ll only have one boxer in the ring. There needs to be an opponent.”