Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday urged the remaining 114 outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) officials to act quickly, as the opportunity for political rehabilitation could end “before or after Khmer New Year” in April.
He said there would be no political pardons or charges dropped, seemingly referring to the president of the former CNRP, Kem Sokha, who is on bail awaiting trial on a treason charge.
“The door is open and it could be closed too. If you ignore this and demand this condition and that condition, you can wait until November 2022 to get [your political rights] back."
“You need to remember! This country is independent, sovereign, democratic and has the rule of law,” Hun Sen said.
He was speaking during the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a flood prevention system and drainage improvement project in Phnom Penh on Monday. The project, funded by the Japanese government, is set to cost $36 million.
The prime minister said it was up to the banned officials to decide whether or not to request political rehabilitation.
“Don’t wait for a political compromise because this is not a political case . . . it is a court case. The court has to try the person as per its investigation. When the [court] closes the investigation it will proceed with the case according to procedure."
“I am just sending the final message to you that if you ignore it, the door could be shut before or after Khmer New Year. Then I won’t care about your request anymore,” he said.
Sokha’s arrest in September 2017 for treason led to the Supreme Court-dissolution of the CNRP and the banning of 118 of its senior officials from all political activity.
However, in January, King Norodom Sihamoni signed off on an amendment to the Law on Political Parties, which allows those banned from politics to receive “political rehabilitation” if deemed to have obeyed the court’s ruling.
So far three of the banned 118 have been granted rehabilitation, while one has demised.
Hun Sen warned that those who defied the court ruling and carried out political activities without having been granted rehabilitation would face “handcuffs”.
He said some of the banned politicians were in the process of preparing a rehabilitation request, but some were undecided after receiving advice from an “unnamed someone” to wait.
“If you wait, please wait until November 2022, which is when the Supreme Court’s ruling comes to an end. You then won’t have the chance to form a political party or participate in [that year’s] commune council elections."
“I don’t need political negotiations whatsoever. I will let the court continue the case against those who have been arrested and placed under investigation. This is my specific political message that Hun Sen will not renege on,” he stressed.
Hun Sen said he had received information that some of those banned had violated the court’s ruling by holding meetings on buses in Cambodian provinces and at the
border with Thailand.
He said no action had been taken against them, but if the government were to, any response should not be called a “political crackdown”.
“‘If you don’t release my boss, I won’t make a [rehabilitation] request’, he said mimicking Sokha supporters.
“If you don’t, it’s up to you. It’s easier for me to control the situation – I’m being frank. Why are you so valuable that you put yourself before the state?” he asked in response to those who had demanded Sokha’s release before making a request for rehabilitation.
He warned that “handcuffs” also awaited those who prepared to welcome any return of CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy “to arrest Hun Sen”.
He said he had received information that Rainsy supporters were preparing to have five people in each commune to welcome him should he come back to Cambodia.
Rainsy is currently living in France to avoid a slew of legal charges and sentences.
Asked if Sokha would consider requesting a political pardon, Meng Sopheary, one of his four defence attorneys, said on Monday that her client could not make such a request because he is barred from political activity by the investigating judge.
“If he was not banned by the investigating judge, he could request rehabilitation,” she said, adding that only the investigating judge could lift the ban.
Mu Sochua, deputy president of the CNRP who is also living abroad, on Monday said she would not make a request for rehabilitation because this would be admitting to a crime she did not commit.
“We will continue to defend our rights, including our political rights,” she said.
Ou Chanrath, a former CNRP lawmaker, said that “pressure” was being applied on the banned CNRP officials from both their leadership and the ruling party.
He reminded that CNRP co-founder and “acting president” Rainsy had referred to those who made a request as “betraying the people and the party”.
“When we are under pressure from the leader of the opposition party and from the ruling party, we are in a difficult situation,” he said. He defended Sokha, saying the charge against him was framed without proof.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said that Hun Sen had set a deadline for CNRP commune councillors to join the CPP and keep their positions upon the dissolution of the CNRP but that deadline had been extended.
Now he has threatened to set another deadline for the rehabilitation of those banned from political activity.
“It would be unlawful to block any application for political rehabilitation as it is in law as an entitlement, not favour,” he said.
Sok Touch, the president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said threatening a deadline was a Hun Sen tactic to scare those who hesitated to request rehabilitation.
He said such politicians should make a request and form a new party as “CNRP” was just a name.
“People will still support you no matter what your party is called because what is important is the person. ‘CNRP’ is just the name of [the party]. So they should consider this,” he said.