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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - King fears democracy in peril

King fears democracy in peril

KING Norodom Sihanouk will stay away from Cambodia and is expected to move from Pyongyang

to Beijing amid simmering political tensions at home.

King Sihanouk has made clear his displeasure at the government's latest moves and

says he fears the destruction of democracy.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has alleged that Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) politicians have established

a militia to oust the government by force.

Little evidence has been offered to support the claim, which has angered human rights

watchdog Amnesty International and US politicians who have rallied around the sole

remaining opposition party leader, Sam Rainsy.

"In a blatant attempt to eradicate political dissent, opponents of the ruling

party are being accused of plotting to use force to overthrow the government,"

Amnesty said in a statement from New York.

"Threats and intimidation by senior political leaders are seriously challenging

people's rights to freedom of association and expression."

Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) turned its attention towards the

SRP after announcing a coalition government had been formed with the royalist Funcinpec

party on July 13, ending a one-year stalemate that followed national elections.

The SRP claimed the deal was unconstitutional and boycotted sittings in the National

Assembly. Sam Rainsy left for the United States while Hun Sen gave opposition politicians

- many are in hiding - 15 days to surrender and confess or risk losing their 24 seats

in parliament.

That deadline expires on August 2, when Sam Rainsy is due to return after attending

the US Democratic Party Convention in Boston.

Military authorities said at least 41 SRP activists had admitted being members of

the militia. But doubts have been cast over the confessions.

"Obtaining confessions by force or by enticement has long been a feature of

Cambodian politics and the judicial system," said Sam Zarifi, deputy director

of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

"Similarly, accusing political dissidents of plotting the violent overthrow

of the government has been a well-worn tactic for intimidating the opposition."

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch said in a joint statement that credible sources have

reported that the confessions "were extracted through the promise of money,

jobs and the threat of arrest and imprisonment".

Sam Rainsy rejected the allegations while senators John McCain and Bill First also

entered the fray, claiming Hun Sen's tactics were designed to intimidate the opposition

and threatened to undermine democracy in Cambodia.

Rainsy told the Post from Boston: "I categorically deny that the SRP has ever

thought of setting up a militia, even less attempted to organize such a thing. It

would be totally contrary to our philosophy."

Hun Sen has claimed the SRP's "Committee No 14" was being used to establish

the rebel force. The SRP says the committee is nothing more than a routine shadow

ministry established to monitor Cambodia's military.

Hun Sen has also warned the diplomatic circuit not to shelter SRP members or their

supporters. He said this would be illegal.

Sam Rainsy has a history of seeking shelter in Western embassies during political

crises, but the standard rule has been that he is not allowed to use mobile phones

or conduct party business from within an embassy compound.

Any moves to charge SRP members of parliament would require a removal of parliamentary

privilege, which grants immunity of prosecution to all sitting members of the National

Assembly.

And if Hun Sen carries out his threat to confiscate and split the SRP's 24 seats

evenly between the CPP and Funcinpec, then the Prime Minister would hold 85 seats

in the 123-seat parliament.

This would give him his coveted two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, which

would enable his CPP to govern outright.

From Pyongyang, King Sihanouk appears less than impressed by the latest political

rumblings. He predicted the worst was yet to come. He said he will not return in

the short term.

"Thus our country, our nation, our democracy are overwhelmed by national division,

an extremely serious political crisis which will in the days and months to come worsen

more," the King wrote in one dispatch.

Palace watchers said the King's next move would be to Beijing where he will host

a round of diplomatic functions as king-in-exile.

"There are retiring ambassadors and diplomats from around the region who hoped

to see him in Phnom Penh so they could pay their respects before finishing up their

postings," one palace source told the Post.

"But the King has indicated he will now receive them in Beijing."

The King's move would widely be viewed as a snub leveled at Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh,

the monarch's son, who invited Sihanouk to return shortly after the coalition government

was formed.

That coalition arrangement came about only after Funcinpec ditched a previous alliance

with the SRP, and cracks appeared in the usually united ranks of Hun Sen's CPP.

As acting head of state in the king's absence, CPP chairman Chea Sim refused to sign

the final agreement and left for Thailand under police escort after his house was

surrounded by troops.

The government said Chea Sim needed medical attention but CPP sources said his faction

was not happy with the final allocation of cabinet postings and ministerial appointments

in the bloated new government.

He returned to Phnom Penh on July 22 and later rejected claims of a factional rift

within the CPP, which Hun Sen dismissed as baseless rumors planted by the SRP to

foment dissent.

Amnesty saw it this way: "Hun Sen is trying to silence his political opponents

by accusing them of forming an illegal rebel force. Rather than creating a climate

of fear and instability, the new government should be protecting and promoting fundamental

human rights."

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