Prime Minister Hun Sen has warned that any political party that attaches itself to former opposition leader Sam Rainsy would be sued in court and possibly dissolved thereafter.

Rainsy, former president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), has faced a slew of court cases over the past several years and has been convicted on various charges. His latest conviction – for which he was tried in absentia as he remains in exile in France – led to a sentence of 25 years for an “attempted coup”, along with eight more years on top of that for the crime of seditious conspiracy.

The warning followed Rainsy’s latest legal defeat – this time his loss in a defamation case in which he accused the premier of orchestrating a helicopter crash that killed then National Police chief Hok Lundy in 2008, with the verdict delivered by a French court on October 10.

Public court records in France indicated that Rainsy was found guilty of defamation but was then granted clemency due to Hun Sen’s power as prime minister and the self-exiled opposition leader’s role as a public figure.

Rainsy also posted inflammatory rhetoric again on social media on October 16, calling the Cambodian general public and the armed forces to “change Cambodia in 2023”, in reference to the national election next year. He also renewed his claims that he would return, this time saying it would be next year.

Rainsy currently lives in France where he has citizenship.

Hun Sen made his latest warning while addressing a university graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh on October 17.

“Remember this clearly! Any political party that links itself to the convict [Rainsy] will receive a complaint about it to the court. If a political party dares to attach itself to Sam Rainsy, they may face dissolution.

“2023 is an election year. Are you attempting to use the armed forces to embark on a violent path to undemocratically topple the government? Instead of trying to win democratic elections, you keep thinking about rising up, which will only land you in prison in the end,” he said.

Hun Sen said all political parties have the freedom to speak about the election and other political matters, but the subject matter of their discussions cannot be anything related to “toppling the government through undemocratic and unconstitutional means”.

He stressed that he was committed to destroying “extremist ideologies” and warned that Rainsy would immediately be arrested if he ever dared to step foot on Cambodian soil.

Cambodia Reform Party (KRP) founder Ou Chanrath said Hun Sen’s public targeting of Rainsy could also be a veiled warning to the Candlelight Party (CP) – currently the country’s second largest after the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). He explained that CP used to be called Sam Rainsy Party and still has many of the same members as its predecessor.

“I think he may be referring to the Candlelight Party, which has many supporters. He may later on accuse this party of having some links with Sam Rainsy because he [Rainsy] was the founder of the party under its former identity before it finally ended up as the Candlelight Party,” said Chanrath, who was formerly a senior CNRP lawmaker.

Chanrath said he was not personally concerned about this warning, but he sees it as further evidence that democratic principles in Cambodia are both “fragile and backsliding”.

“I fear that if there is an attempt use the courts to dissolve another political party, then democracy in Cambodia will face even more problems when it is already fragile.

“We have seen that the dissolution of the CNRP caused many challenges at home and with the international community, who sees Cambodia’s democracy as deficient, which has caused international political pressure to be levied against our economy, and caused the loss of international investors and donors,” he said.

Disavowing any connection or desire for a connection with Rainsy, Chanrath said his party is ready to compete in next year’s national election and he urged the authorities to transparently implement measures to uphold political rights and freedom.

“We are ready for the election, but we are also advocating for this to be an acceptably free and fair election. If the pressure becomes too much or the authorities interrupt our work as a party, it could affect the degree of bravery we can summon to go forward with participating,” he said.

CP spokesman Thach Setha told The Post that it was not the first time that Hun Sen made such remarks. Setha dismissed the warning as just a reminder for all political parties to obey the law on political parties at all times.

“It’s important that we know each party’s history because all of them do have a history. So, the Candlelight Party also has it timeline, but we must adhere to our principles and respect the law on political parties, although that law is not a perfect one,” he said.

Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said this “open warning” by Hun Sen was to prevent any political parties from getting involved with Rainsy on any level.

“We all might have known that the Candlelight Party may have past connections to Sam Rainsy, but actually the Candlelight Party is currently taking advantage of Rainsy while he is absent, while Rainsy himself also tries hard in whatever way he can to show that he is behind this new party and his actions actually bring hardship to them,” he said.

Phea explained that based on the new law on political parties, all parties are forbidden from having any official links to convicts who have been sentenced with a final verdict after appeals have been exhausted.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said local political parties cannot have any links with Rainsy because the government has labelled him and his group an “outlawed rebel faction” who attempted to topple the democratically-elected government. Such actions, he said, violate the principles of democracy and are against the Constitution.

“Any group that joins with Sam Rainsy is also a criminal group because Sam Rainsy is a convict and the court has sentenced him in total to more than 100 years in prison. Any party found conspiring with Sam Rainsy is therefore an illegal organisation,” he said.