The credibility of next year’s election was thrown further into doubt yesterday, as ruling party lawmakers approved the “treason” case against opposition leader Kem Sokha, the prime minister doubled down on threats to dissolve the opposition and a CNRP lawmaker threatened to boycott the ballot.
According to an official notice released by the National Assembly, 67 Cambodian People’s Party lawmakers yesterday voted to allow authorities to continue their case against the opposition leader, who faces up 30 years in prison on a charge of “conspiring with a foreign power”.
The notice said there was no motion to halt the case during the extraordinary plenary session, which was unsurprising as the session was boycotted by Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers, many of whom instead travelled to Correctional Centre 3 in Tbong Khmum province in an attempt to visit Sokha, who is being held at the remote facility.
Blocked from visiting their leader and surrounded by about 200 police, Military Police and soldiers, the group of 18 opposition lawmakers and seven senators condemned the “illegal” arrest and vowed to return weekly to demand their president’s release.
Speaking outside the prison, which was yesterday shut off to all visitors, CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said the party would walk away from next year’s ballot if Sokha remained in prison. “We cannot accept that authorities have arrested our President Kem Sokha on [September] 3 and violated the law,” Sochua said.
“In terms of a free and fair election, if the President of the CNRP Kem Sokha is not released and cannot participate in the upcoming election, we cannot participate in the elections . . . because it opposes our people’s will and that of the nation.”
Authorities claim Sokha conspired with the United States to topple the government. His midnight arrest, however, is widely seen as part of a broader pre-election CPP crackdown against critics, the media and the CNRP, which captured 55 of 123 Assembly seats at 2013’s national ballot and is seen as the CPP’s only legitimate competition.
The growing question of the legitimacy of next July’s election also appeared to be on the mind of Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday, who missed casting his vote at the National Assembly and instead spoke to almost 4,000 graduating students on Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich.
While continuing his attacks on Sokha – whom he vowed would not receive a pardon – he also threatened to dissolve the opposition, noting that CNRP was not the only party competing next July. “If the party continues to protect and defend this national traitor, it means this party has already committed treason, so there is no time to keep this party to operate in Cambodia’s democracy,” the premier said.
“Cambodia dissolves one political party, but there are many other parties to participate in the election.”
Similar sentiments were expressed yesterday by Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak as well as National Election Committee member Hang Puthea.
Speaking on the phone, Sopheak said the opposition’s dissolution would not undermine Cambodia’s democracy, even suggesting the CNRP could revert to its previous factions – Sam Rainsy’s now-defunct Sam Rainsy Party and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party – and still compete.
The SRP, which still exists in the Senate, was forced to change its name to the “Candlelight Party” after controversial July amendments to the Law on Political Parties were rammed through by the CPP to sideline opposition mainstay Rainsy. The HRP, meanwhile, no longer has any representatives at the local or parliamentary level.
NEC spokesman Puthea also chimed in on the matter, telling government mouthpiece Fresh News a CNRP boycott would be “no problem” as other parties could still participate. The CNRP captured nearly half of the popular vote in the 2013 national election – no other party came close to winning even a single seat.
Lee Morgenbesser, a researcher on authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia at Australia’s Griffith University, said the emphasis on the number of parties, rather than the vote share, was “cynical but clever”, though unlikely to persuade many.
“An easy argument can be made that, regardless of who participates, the 2018 elections will lack legitimacy due to inherent problems of freedom and fairness. This has been the case for every election since 1998,” he said via email.
During the speech yesterday, the premier also called out another CNRP lawmaker, later identified as Ho Vann, whom he accused of “handing out bread” to workers striking during infamous demonstrations on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard.
The strikes – borne out of dissatisfaction with 2013’s new minimum wage – turned fatal in January of 2014 when security forces shot dead at least four people, with a fifth missing and presumed dead.
The demonstrations were on Sunday characterised by Hun Sen as part of the purported conspiracy to topple his government, something he vowed to further investigate.
“If the whole party was involved, it is clear the party must be dissolved. [This is] an act of conspiracy, treason and betrayal of the country,” he said, according to a video clip posted to Fresh News.
Yesterday the premier said Vann had fled to Thailand, though the CNRP lawmaker later told The Post he was receiving medical treatment and had left of his own accord.
Hun Sen also claimed CPP lawmakers were within their rights to approve the case against Sokha, whom he called a national traitor. “I would like to clarify that the meeting at the parliament this morning was not to strip immunity but . . . to pave the way for [the case],” he said.
“If you want to hold back the case, for it not to proceed, you need three-quarters of the voices [votes]. Red-handed crimes do not require us to strip immunity, but [allow us] to arrest immediately and report to parliament.”
The CPP has long been accused of abusing the constitutional clause regarding in flagrante delicto offences – often referred to as “red-handed crimes” – which allows police to arrest lawmakers caught in the act of committing a crime despite their legal immunity.
Despite the opposition leader being at home when he was seized, officials claimed the crime fit the category because a video of Sokha saying he received US support for his political career remained accessible online.
The same justification was used in the arrests of opposition lawmakers Um Sam An and Hong Sok Hour over critical comments about Cambodia’s handling of border issues with Vietnam.
As in those cases, which were also widely condemned as politically motivated, CPP lawmakers and Hun Sen yesterday appeared to ignore the fourth paragraph of Article 80, which covers parliamentary immunity.
The paragraph states that a decision on the case must be approved by a two-thirds majority in the assembly, which the CPP lacks.
Reporting by Niem Chheng, Mech Dara, Leonie Kijewski, Shaun Turton and Meas Sokchea