UPDATED at 1:25 P.M. EST on 2019-01-09
At least two senior officials from Cambodia’s opposition who were barred from politics said they will seek a “pardon” to have their rights reinstated after King Norodom Sihamoni approved an amendment to the country’s law on political parties on Tuesday.
Kong Koam, the former president of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), and his son Kong Bora, a former senior official with the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), said they will ask for individual “pardons” on Wednesday to resume political activities, according to a condition Prime Minister Hun Sen has said must be met before they can take advantage of the new amendment to overturn their ban.
“The reason I will request to be pardoned is because I can’t stay an outlaw,” Kong Bora told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that he had never violated any law. His father, whose SRP merged with the Human Rights Party (HRP) to form the CNRP ahead of Cambodia’s 2013 ballot, could not be reached for comment.
The two were among 118 officials slapped with a five-year suspension of political rights as part of a decision by the Supreme Court in November 2017 to dissolve the CNRP for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) effectively ran uncontested in Cambodia’s July 29 general election and won all 125 seats in parliament, drawing condemnation from Western nations who called the ballot unfree and unfair amid the crackdown on the opposition and other rollbacks on democracy.
In late December, Hun Sen’s Constitutional Council unanimously approved an amendment to the draft law on political parties proposed by the one-party parliament, paving the way for the reinstatement of political rights to the 118 CNRP officials, in what was widely seen as a bid to ease international pressure on his government.
On Tuesday, the king signed off on the legislation, which does not provide for the reestablishment of the CNRP, and which Hun Sen has said will only allow the opposition officials to return to politics if they each make an individual request for a “pardon.”
Critics have called it a “trap” aimed at fracturing the CNRP.
Call to ‘remain strong’
Meanwhile, CNRP acting president Sam Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid a string of convictions issued by courts seen as beholden to Hun Sen, urged the 118 senior CNRP officials to reject the prime minister’s demand that they request pardons, calling it “a trick” in a post to his Facebook page.
“I call on the 118 CNRP officials to remain strong, not to fall into Hun Sen's trap, and not to unknowingly serve the current dictatorship,” he wrote.
“Please follow the example of [other CNRP members] who have been released from jail and vowed to continue our righteous fight for freedom and democracy.”
Sam Rainsy said that the officials should wait until Hun Sen agrees to reinstate the CNRP, release the party’s president Kem Sokha—who is under house arrest facing charges of treason—and call for a new election that includes all parties.
CPP spokesman Sok Ey San said Tuesday that with the amendment to the law on political parties approved, his party is waiting for former CNRP officials with open arms.
“The door has been opened—all we are waiting for is people to come,” he said.
Hun Sen has regularly called on CNRP officials to defect since their party was dissolved and recently suggested that increasing the number of local level government positions in Cambodia would entice formerly elected opposition members to return to politics with the CPP.
Last week, parliament approved draft laws to increase the number of positions, but observers have said the current amount is sufficient, and that existing councilors should instead be made more effective through better training and increased budgets.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly referred to Kong Koam as a former senior CNRP official.