Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen said Wednesday that he will ask for a royal decree to grant permission for more than 100 senior members of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to reenter politics based on “individual merit,” following a ban last year.
The prime minister and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) overwhelmingly won a July 29 election widely criticized as unfree and unfair following the Supreme Court’s November 2017 dissolution of the CNRP and a five-year ban on the political activities of 118 of its senior officials for the party’s role in an alleged plot to topple the government.
With CPP control of the country secured, Cambodia’s now one-party National Assembly is preparing an amended version of a draft law on political parties for a vote on Dec. 13 which, if accepted, would allow the 118 officials to reenter politics, although it does not provide for the reestablishment of the CNRP.
The move is widely seen as part of a bid by Hun Sen to ease international pressure on his government in response to limiting democratic freedoms in the lead up to July’s election, in which the CPP won all 125 seats being contested.
On Wednesday, Hun Sen told an audience during a speaking event in Kampong Speu province that he will ask King Norodom Sihamoni to reestablish the political rights of only those 118 officials who had “shown respect for the Supreme Court’s ruling,” and vowed to imprison any who violated the ban.
“As prime minister, I am ready to accept individual requests [to have the political ban lifted], not one from a party,” he said.
He warned Interior Minister Sar Kheng to “make no mistake” that the passing of the draft law on political parties did not mean a blanket lifting of the ban on political activities for the 118 senior CNRP officials, and that “each official needs to make an individual request” to have their rights reinstated.
Hun Sen’s critics, including acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy, have said the move to lift the ban on the opposition officials is “a trap” and warned that it does not go far enough to resolve Cambodia’s political crisis.
On Wednesday, Sam Rainsy, who is living abroad in self-imposed exile to avoid a string of politically motivated convictions, urged the 118 officials not to accept Hun Sen’s demand that they request to have their political rights reinstated.
He told RFA’s Khmer Service that any deal must include the release of CNRP President Kem Sokha, who was arrested on charges of treason two months ahead of his party’s dissolution and, while he has been granted bail, remains under house arrest, is barred from meeting with CNRP officials or foreigners, and cannot speak at or host any rallies or political activities.
Sam Rainsy suggested that international pressure is working, and would soon lead Hun Sen to free Kem Sokha, reinstate the CNRP, drop all charges against members of the opposition, and return elected seats of government to the party’s officials.
Since the July election, the U.S. has since announced visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of measures aimed at pressuring Cambodia to reverse course, and outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt recently called on the government to free Kem Sokha and foster political reconciliation in the nation.
The European Union, which was the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, withdrew support ahead of the ballot and has said it will drop a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports based on the country’s election environment.
“Hun Sen can’t avoid it, so he is trying to trick the CNRP by offering a partial solution that will likely require its officials to defect to the ruling party,” Sam Rainsy said.
“No one should fall into his trap—don’t feel threatened and please remain calm. Hun Sen must provide us a full solution that includes the reinstatement of the CNRP, Kem Sokha’s release and allowing all 118 CNRP officials to reenter politics.”
Analyst Kim Sok told RFA that Hun Sen is trying to split the CNRP into pieces, like he has with other parties in the past.
“Hun Sen is facing a dead end [because of international pressure], so the CNRP must maintain its firm stance and don’t fall for his strategy,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.