In an effort to preserve a cohesive political opposition, Sam Rainsy stepped down as president of Cambodia’s major opposition party this weekend.
The move comes as Prime Minister Hun Sen and the National Assembly threatened to enact new laws that would enable the government to dismantle the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
On Saturday, Sam Rainsy announced his resignation as president of the CNRP on his Facebook page, where he criticized the National Assembly as a puppet parliament.
“I need to protect the party,” he said in the post. “If I remain party president, the party will be dismantled, and then what would be the point?”
Hun Sen is proposing an amendment to Cambodia’s law on political parties that seeks to bar anyone convicted in Cambodian courts from holding a political party’s top office.The “culprit law” would also dissolve any party whose president is convicted of a crime and would enable the government to seize the party’s property.
Cambodian courts are notorious for their lack of independence. Opposition politicians often find themselves before the courts on various charges, and Sam Rainsy is no exception.
He has been convicted in a number of cases brought before the Cambodian courts by Hun Sen or members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and has been living in France since 2015 to avoid arrest in a defamation case brought by former Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008.
In September he was found guilty of defamation for claiming that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s social medial team had bought “likes” on Facebook from “click farms” abroad to increase the appearance of support.
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.
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.
Hun Sen has said that the law needs to be changed to rid Cambodian politics of “any individual with culprit status.”
“We shall ban not just a few people, but we shall get rid of the whole slate so that they are deterred,” he said.
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.
‘So what do we want?’
Remaining at the top of the CNRP would not just threaten the party, but the country, Sam Rainsy said in his message.
“If the CNRP is dismantled then it would destroy the whole nation and party’s interest,” he said “So what do we want? We want the election because we want change through the electoral process.”
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann told RFA the party accepted Sam Rainsy’s resignation and agreed to have vice president Kem Sokha lead the party as interim president until a party congress chooses a new president. Kem Sokha has also recently been an acting president of the CNRP.
“No matter what, Sam Rainsy is always in the hearts of the Cambodian people and the hearts of the party leaders,” Yom Sovann said.
Independent political analyst Meas Nee described Sam Rainsy’s resignation as a smart move that could protect the party from disaster.
Having Kem Sokha lead the CNRP may not be a panacea, however, as he has legal issues of his own.
According to local media reports, the country’s Anti-Corruption Unit is investigating Kem Sokha for corruption over leaked audio recordings in which he is allegedly heard promising to buy property for a mistress.
Kem Sokha has neither confirmed nor denied that he is the man in the recordings, but he was sentenced to five months in prison last year for failing to present himself as a witness in the woman’s prostitution case. Although Kem Sokha eventually received a royal pardon at the request of Hun Sen, the case still hangs over his head.
While Hun Sen may have succeeded in getting Sam Rainsy to resign, he shows no signs of easing his legal campaign against anyone who speaks against him.
Hun Sen’s new attack
Hun Sen filed a lawsuit Monday against social and political commentator Kim Sok, demanding $500,000 in compensation for accusing the CPP of orchestrating the 2016 murder of popular political analyst Kem Ley.
“First he accused the CPP of plotting the assassination and planning to rob power from the opposition party,” said Ky Tech, the prime minister’s attorney. “The CPP can’t stand for such an allegation.”
During a speech inaugurating a bridge along the Cambodian-Chinese border in Kandal province, Hun Sen said Kim Sok was inciting social chaos and threatened him with jail and monetary forfeiture.
“Maybe you will face two years in prison and have to pay all the money,” Hun Sen said. “Don’t even say you don’t have money. If you don’t have the compensation money, we will confiscate your house and sell it.”
Kem Ley was gunned down in broad daylight on July 10 when he stopped in a Star Mart convenience store beside a Caltex gas station in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
Though authorities charged a former soldier, identified as Oueth Ang, with the killing, many in Cambodia don’t believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed by the man over a debt. The accused killer has used the alias Chuop Samlap, which roughly translated means “meet to kill.”
Just days before he was gunned down, Kem Ley had discussed on an RFA Khmer Service call-in show a report by London-based Global Witness detailing the extent of the wealth of the family of Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 31 years.
Since the arrest, the investigation has apparently stalled, or is not being pursued as the Cambodian authorities have someone in custody.
Kim Sok denied the allegations, saying what he told RFA was a reflection what many Cambodians think.
“A person who is speaking about the truth and wants justice is not a person who is creating social chaos,” he said. “A person who creates serious social chaos is a person who doesn’t respect the law.”