Prime Minister Hun Sen said from now on he will “stop talking” about the recently dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party and instructed his government officials to do the same, before vowing that self-exiled opposition members who returned to Cambodia would not face arrest.
Speaking to garment factory workers in Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district yesterday, Hun Sen said his suggestion that former opposition officials form a new party of their own had been mocked by them.
The premier encouraged former officials on Sunday to start their own party, though 118 of the most prominent CNRP officials would be ineligible from doing so after being banned from politics for five years by the Supreme Court’s November 16 ruling.
“If you do not join [elections], the election will still be held. Do not hope for the dissolved party to come to life again . . . Please remember from today onwards, I do not need to talk about it again and there is no need to talk about it,” he said.
The premier then instructed his fellow government members to do the same.
“I think that government officials should not talk about the members of the illegal group anymore,” he said.
The CNRP has been accused of attempting to overthrow the government with the help of foreign backing and was dissolved in a widely condemned decision two months after the arrest of its leader, Kem Sokha, in September.
In his speech, Hun Sen also offered a seemingly conciliatory tone to the banned politicians, many of whom have fled the country. “Even the 118 politicians, they are only banned from politics, but they will not arrest you to put you in jail,” he said. “If you want to come, please come.”
Political analyst Meas Nee said the premier’s comments appeared to be an attempt to ease political tensions and outside pressure. “I think Samdech prime minister weighed international pressure and thought about many effects that could not be [foreseen],” he said.
Mu Sochua, deputy president of now-dissolved CNRP, said the premier’s comments were a good first step, but many more were required for a return. “That’s progress,” she said. “Free Kem Sokha now and we will all come back as politicians.”
Party leaders would not come back on Hun Sen’s terms, she said, reiterating that they would need to be allowed to return to work as elected officials.
“The CNRP remains [a] legitimate political party that must have space to compete at next elections,” she said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the politicians had never been forced to leave. Asked about a warning from the prime minister late last month saying that former opposition members could be deported back to Cambodia from Thailand, he said the premier was referring to “different people”, without elaborating.
“Some people voluntarily left . . . and have no [court] case against them,” he said.
Chham Bunthet, political analyst and adviser to the Grassroots Democracy Party, said that though the call to return was a positive development, concrete action was needed to change the situation.
“I think that it is a good thing if they open their heart for real, but it should be some mechanism rather than just speaking,” he said. “The people who fled should stop throwing insults from the far distance and the internal people should stop intimidating and should start to resume the culture of dialogue.”