OPPOSITION leader Sam Rainsy was stripped of his parliamentary immunity for the second time this year during a closed National Assembly session on Monday, paving the way for his prosecution on charges related to the removal of posts marking the country’s border with Vietnam.
The Assembly’s vote was boycotted by lawmakers from the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party, who marched through the city holding a large map of Cambodia aloft in protest.
In a statement released after the motion, which was supported by all 87 lawmakers present, the SRP accused the ruling Cambodian People’s Party of caving to pressure from Hanoi.
“This measure has violated the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, and it shows that that the Cambodian authorities have merely enforced a Vietnamese government order,” said the statement.
The Assembly’s vote paves the way for Sam Rainsy’s prosecution by Svay Rieng provincial court with regard to an October 26 incident in Svay Rieng’s Chantrea district, where he helped uproot six wooden posts that villagers say were placed illegally by Vietnamese authorities.
His action prompted a storm of protest from Hanoi, which said his “perverse” act had interfered in the two countries’ sensitive border-demarcation process.
Speaking by phone from Paris, Sam Rainsy said the lifting of his immunity was an “alarming sign”, but that his allegations of Vietnamese border incursions were based on facts about threats to Cambodia’s territorial integrity. In other border provinces – especially Kampong Cham – he said villagers have made similar complaints to him about Vietnamese encroachments.
Sam Rainsy said he did not yet know when he would return to Cambodia, but that he is scheduled to meet with the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union and the European Parliament, where he will discuss border encroachments in addition to other political and human rights issues.
“The incident in Svay Rieng is just one example of the totalitarian drift of this country,” he added.
Speaking at the Council of Ministers on Monday evening, Var Kimhong, senior minister in charge of border affairs, said the Assembly had suspended Sam Rainsy’s immunity because he destroyed border markers agreed between the two countries.
He said the border posts were placed on the basis of treaties signed in 1985 and 2005, and that although land had been ceded to Vietnam in some areas, it was compensated by gains elsewhere.
“We did [border demarcation] by bipartisan agreement.... We did not allow Vietnam to take action based on their own decisions,” he said.
Nguon Nhel, first deputy president of the Assembly, dismissed the SRP claim that the government was acting under orders from Vietnam.
“The decision to revoke Sam Rainsy’s immunity does not come at the request of any nation. Cambodia is a sovereign and independent nation ... not a colony of any foreign country.”
Monday’s vote was the fourth time this year that an SRP lawmaker’s constitutional immunity has been revoked. On June 22, the Assembly suspended the immunity of SRP lawmakers Mu Sochua and Ho Vann after senior government officials filed lawsuits against them. Sam Rainsy was also stripped of his immunity in February, forcing him to pay a fine to the National Election Committee.
The action drew widespread criticism from human rights activists, who said it undermined the freedom of representatives to perform their duties.
“Every time [lawmakers] say anything controversial or critical, they’re in danger of having their immunity lifted,” said Sara Colm, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
She said that during the current diplomatic spat with Thailand, discussion of border issues, particularly with Vietnam, were a particular sore point for the government.
“Most people are reluctant – if not fearful – to press any criticisms of the relationship between the two countries,” she said.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA), repeated SRP claims that the action was intended to “satisfy neighbouring countries”. Others said allegations of Vietnamese encroachments should have been investigated.
“If they were found to be true, we should have debated it as a political issue,” said Chan Soveth, a programme officer at rights group Adhoc.
Kek Pung, president of rights group Licadho, said the suspensions undermined the constitutional role of parliamentarians.
“It’s a kind of protection. If their immunity is lifted so easily, it can affect their work,” she said. “And who at the end will be the victims? The Cambodian people.”