Cambodia’s Supreme Court began on Wednesday to hear an appeal against the 2017 conviction in a defamation case brought against CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, now living in exile outside Cambodia, with observers calling the move a ploy by the ruling party to divide its opposition.
The move follows the appointment in early December by the Cambodia National Rescue Party of Sam Rainsy as acting party president while previous party chief Kem Sokha remains detained in the capital Phnom Penh on charges of treason.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Dec. 6, CNRP supporter Mao Vibol said that the Court’s appeal hearing, with a decision to be announced on Dec. 19, was forced by Sam Rainsy’s growing popularity following his appointment as party leader.
“In the past, the CNRP has faced all kinds of difficulties . . . while several lawsuits were launched against Sam Rainsy himself,” Mao Vibol said.
“All of this has caused great concern for citizens, human rights activists, and civil society officials,” he said, adding that ruling-party lawsuits brought against the CNRP have blocked the development of democracy in Cambodia “and become barriers for politicians who are nationalists and patriots and lovers of justice.”
Also speaking to RFA, political commentator Kim Sok—who served more than a year in prison for making statements critical of Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)—called the Supreme Court’s move a ploy to weaken the exile-based CNRP, which was banned in Cambodia by the Supreme Court in November last year for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government.
The restrictions on the CNRP and the arrest two months earlier of its president, Kem Sokha, were part of a wider crackdown on civil society and media that paved the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to sweep all 125 seats contested in a July 29 election that was widely dismissed as unfree and unfair.
“Now that [Sam Rainsy’s] political journey has attracted more attention and become more energized, [Hun Sen and the CPP] will seek to further interrupt or hinder him,” Kim Sok said.
“Otherwise, his political activities will become a real threat to Hun Sen’s strategies to cling to power,” he said.
CNRP fully united
Speaking to RFA in a Dec. 5 call-in show, Sam Rainsy said that government moves to divide the CNRP are doomed to fail, adding “We won’t play Hun Sen’s game.”
“We must uphold the strong position that the CNRP is fully united, and that Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy are also united.”
The international community, which has threatened trade sanctions over the outcome of July’s ballot, “must not believe in Hun Sen,” Sam Rainsy said, adding that Kem Sokha must be “immediately and unconditionally” freed from detention, and all charges dropped against CNRP officials charged with crimes.
The CNRP must meanwhile be reinstated in Cambodia, with opposition party officials restored to the posts to which they were elected in local elections, and from which they were dismissed by the government after the party was dissolved.
“These positions must be reinstated, since citizens voted for the CNRP,” Sam Rainsy said, adding that new elections for the Senate and National Assembly must also now be held.
Cambodia’s government on Monday outlined a plan to “strengthen democracy and political space” in the country following July’s divisive election, but observers said the proposal is aimed at alleviating international pressure and does not go far enough in rolling back restrictions put in place ahead of the ballot.
Not far enough
In a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cambodia said it plans to amend the country’s political party law to lift a five-year ban on the political activities of 118 senior members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November last year for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government.
Cambodia’s government also vowed to promote “genuine partnership” with civil society groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), address matters related to labor and trade union rights, uphold press freedom and freedom of expression, and address longstanding land disputes by accelerating nationwide land registration, Monday’s statement said.
Speaking to RFA earlier this week, political analyst Ly Srey Sros said that Hun Sen’s regime appears to be trying to resolve the tense political situation in Cambodia following international pressure, adding that the country stands to benefit if the government truly want to “open up the political space” without trying to divide the opposition.
But she warned that tricks aimed at benefiting the ruling party will only further destabilize Cambodia’s political environment.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Richard Finney.