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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Court to weigh CNRP’s fate, moving government closer towards killing off its largest political rival

Traffic passes in front of the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s headquarters yesterday in Phnom Penh. The Interior Ministry has filed complaints to dissolve the party ahead of next year’s crucial national elections.
Traffic passes in front of the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s headquarters yesterday in Phnom Penh. The Interior Ministry has filed complaints to dissolve the party ahead of next year’s crucial national elections. Pha Lina

Court to weigh CNRP’s fate, moving government closer towards killing off its largest political rival

Officials at the Supreme Court yesterday confirmed that the institution will pursue the Ministry of Interior’s motion to dissolve the CNRP, as condemnation began to pour in from the international community.

“The court will process the case in compliance with the law, especially the new amendments to the Political Party Law,” said spokesman Nou Mony Choth yesterday.

The complaint was lodged to the country’s highest court by the Interior Ministry on Friday, after the ministry received two complaints from the Cambodian Youth Party (CYP) and Funcinpec last week calling for the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s dissolution.

Under new amendments to the Law on Political Parties, the Supreme Court can dissolve the CNRP – the country’s main opposition – if it finds that the party associated with a convicted felon, or conspired against the interests of the country.

Party President Kem Sokha is in pretrial detention on charges of “treason”, while Prime Minister Hun Sen and others have alleged that the party as a whole was involved in a plot to topple the government.

CNRP President Kem Sokha waves the Cambodian flag as he leads a party campaign rally in June this year.
CNRP President Kem Sokha waves the Cambodian flag as he leads a party campaign rally in June this year. Heng Chivoan

Charles Santiago, chairman of the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said that fears over recent amendments to the Law on Political Parties – rammed through by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and aimed at the CNRP – have proved well founded.

“The move to use this deeply undemocratic law as a pretext to shut down the CNRP makes clear that the CPP has lost hope in its own ability to win the support of the people,” the Malaysian lawmaker said in a statement.

“The international community needs to wake up and recognize that any hope for free and fair elections in July 2018 is effectively dead,” he added.

Human Rights Watch released a similar statement, in which Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson accused Hun Sen and the CPP of “killing Cambodian democracy”. Calling the accusations against the CNRP a “politically motivated lie”, Robertson said the dissolution of the opposition is now inevitable.

“The dissolution of the CNRP is a done deal because the Supreme Court is totally controlled by the ruling CPP party and the judges will perform exactly as Hun Sen orders,” he wrote, adding that Hun Sen is “shamelessly transforming himself into a dictator”.

Robertson went on to call out Japan and the European Union directly, demanding that they withdraw “any further aid or technical assistance to an election which will not be free or fair”.

George Edgar, the European Union ambassador, would not say whether the EU would withdraw aid, but reiterated “serious concerns”. “Dissolution by the authorities of the main opposition party would be an extremely negative step,” he said.

The Japanese Embassy, meanwhile, did not respond to requests for comment.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday confirmed that every elected CNRP official would be removed from their posts if the party were dissolved.

“Every CNRP official would be out of business . . . from commune level up to the Senate,” he said. When asked who would take over the vacant positions, Siphan deferred the question. “I am not an expert on the constitution,” he said.

Ministry of Interior lawyers file a complaint to dissolve the CNRP at the Supreme Court on Friday.
Ministry of Interior lawyers file a complaint against the CNRP at the Supreme Court on Friday. Photo supplied

Som Sorida, deputy secretary-general for the National Election Committee (NEC), was more forthcoming.

Sorida said the CNRP’s 55 National Assembly seats would be distributed to other parties that participated in the 2013 election, excluding the ruling party.

“It means that the seats of the party which is going to be dissolved will be shared to political parties competing in the election . . . except the CPP, which already has seats,” he said.

The ruling party, however, would be eligible to take over the CNRP’s more than 5,000 commune council seats and 11 Senate seats, he said, with the seats going to the party with the most remaining votes during the recent elections.

Sorida’s explanation of the National Assembly procedure, however, seems to contradict Cambodian law, which stipulates that if a party willingly or forcibly “abandons” a seat, it can only be redistributed to another party with a seat in that same province.

No other party has seats in the assembly, and every province with just one seat is already controlled by the ruling party.

The potential outcome explained by Sorida largely mirrors an editorial by government mouthpiece Fresh News last week that first suggested redistributing the seats to minor parties in order to save “multi-party democracy”. The op-ed noted that Funcinpec – a party that has slid into irrelevance since its ’90s heyday – would receive the bulk, with 41 seats.

The royalist party has continually denied any collusion with the government, despite filing its own complaint to the Ministry of Interior requesting the dissolution of the CNRP last week. Spokesman Nheb Bun Chhin declined to comment yesterday.

Dr Paul Chambers, a lecturer at the College of Asean Community Studies with Naresuan University, said the CPP’s “ultimate plan” was the total destruction of the main opposition party. “The entire process . . . does not follow the rule of law because, first there is not enough evidence for a treason charge and second, since Kem Sokha has yet to be convicted, how can the Supreme Court even accept the complaint?” Chambers asked.

Chambers also said the ruling party would look to replace the CNRP with a “tamed political opposition”, theorising they may “resurrect” Funcinpec to serve this role.

O'Char's CNRP commune chief Sin Rozeth seen consulting with villagers during an inspection on Saturday in Battambang province.
O'Char's CNRP commune chief Sin Rozeth seen consulting with villagers during an inspection on Saturday in Battambang province. Facebook

Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said it was more important to the ruling party to shore up control of grassroots politics than to add to its already overwhelming majority in Parliament. “The commune council . . . exerts a fair bit of authority over the common people,” he said, noting that the CNRP’s recent success at the commune level was a “serious challenge” to the CPP’s hold on the country.

Siek Mekong, the CNRP chief of Stung Treng province’s Srekor commune, accused the CPP of creating an uneven playing field. “The question is whether it is justice? Will the winner get honour?” Mekong asked.

Sin Rozeth, a popular CNRP commune chief in Battambang town, vowed to continue serving the people even if she were removed from her post, and called for CNRP supporters to continue registering to vote in the hope of a solution. “If they dissolve the CNRP, it’s like destroying the peoples’ ballots,” she said.

Even without a viable opposition to vote for, Strangio said, popular discontent with the status quo would remain. “You can’t erase people’s dissatisfaction and desire for change.”

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