Cambodia’s rubber stamp parliament on Thursday approved draft laws to increase the number of local level government positions, after Prime Minister Hun Sen suggested such legislation would encourage opposition officials whose party he had dissolved to defect to his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Leng Peng Long, the spokesman for the one-party National Assembly, told RFA’s Khmer Service that CPP lawmakers unanimously voted in favor of draft laws amending the administrative management of the capital, provinces, municipalities and districts, and passed them on to the Senate, where they are likely to be approved before being signed into law by King Norodom Sihamoni.
Ruling party lawmakers Cheam Yeap and Hun Neang had said in a proposal for the draft laws that current laws were put into place in 2008 and no longer reflect the needs of Cambodia’s changing electorate.
“The population has increased, requiring more effective services to address the peoples’ needs,” they wrote ahead of submitting the draft laws for approval.
The proposed draft law called for an increase in the number of municipality councilors from 21 to 27, provincial councilors from 15 to 27, capital councilors from 11 to 21, and district councilors from 11 to 21.
The CPP effectively ran uncontested in Cambodia’s July 29 general election and won all 125 seats in parliament after the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017 and slapped 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.
Last week, Hun Sen’s Constitutional Council unanimously approved an amendment to the draft law on political parties, paving the way for the reinstatement of rights to the 118 CNRP officials banned from politics by the Supreme Court’s decision.
The legislation does not provide for the reestablishment of the CNRP, and Hun Sen has said the political rights of the officials will only be reinstated if they had “shown respect for the Supreme Court’s ruling,” and provided they each make an individual request.
The move is widely seen as part of a bid by Hun Sen to ease international pressure on his government in response to a crackdown on the opposition, NGOs and the independent media in the lead up to July’s election. Critics have called it a “trap” aimed at fracturing the CNRP.
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.
On Thursday, former CNRP councilor of Kampong Thom Province Thai Tim told RFA there are already too many councilor positions in Cambodia and that additional ones are unnecessary.
“The CPP is increasing the number of councilors purely as a benefit to party members,” he said.
San Chey, president of local nongovernmental organization Network for Social Accountability, echoed Thai Tim’s concerns, adding that instead of adding more councilors, the current ones should be made more effective through better training and increased budgets.
“We have enough councilors, what we need is to improve their capabilities,” he said.
San Chey added that younger candidates should also be given a chance to act as councilors to promote new approaches to governance.
While the government has extended an olive branch to CNRP members who are willing to defect to the CPP, it has targeted those who continue to pledge allegiance to the now-dissolved opposition party.
At least three former CNRP officials and commune councilors in Banteay Meanchey province were recently forced by police to sign contracts vowing to sever ties with the party, while security forces are seeking to question several people who gathered earlier this week in support of acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy after he pledged to return from self-imposed exile before March to lead them.
Khun Chanty, a formerly elected CNRP chief of Banteay Meanchey’s Poipet city, told RFA that she and two other former CNRP officials were made to sign affidavits that that would “keep our political opinions to ourselves” and refrain from making public statements about their party.
“We have been deprived of political rights as guaranteed in the constitution,” she told RFA.
“I don’t see the reason for a constitution when the authorities simply turn a blind eye to it.”
Meanwhile, “several others are on the run” from the authorities, Khun Chanty said.
Another CNRP official in Banteay Meanchey, Cheath Khemara, told RFA that police have cracked down on opposition activities since more than 100 CNRP members gathered in Poipet on Jan. 1 at the home of an activist named Khann Lai in support of Sam Rainsy, who has been living abroad to avoid a string of convictions issued by courts seen as acting at Hun Sen’s direction.
Cheath Khemara said several senior CNRP officials in Banteay Meanchey’s Au Chrov, Thma Puok and Mongkul Borei districts have been summoned for questioning and intimidated over the assembly.
Khann Lai told RFA that he was brought in by police on Wednesday and made to sign a document pledging that he would not host another gathering to honor Sam Rainsy, who assumed leadership of the CNRP while the party’s president, Kem Sokha, is held under house arrest awaiting a trial on charges of “treason.”
“I was questioned in a way that I made me feel intimidated, but I did nothing wrong,” he said.
A campaigner with local human rights group Adhoc in Banteay Meanchey named Sum Chankea said he was aware of “at least 10 policemen” who were recently seen questioning people that allowed CNRP activists to gather at their homes.
“The authorities can’t go around intimidating people like this,” he said.
“They need to understand the law. There is no law that prohibits people from gathering to voice their political views.”
Thin Sindeth, a police officer in Poipet, hung up the phone when questioned by RFA about official intimidation of CNRP officials and activists, while other police officers have said that the public can “support any party, as long as it isn’t the CNRP.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun and Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.