Five former opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) politicians on Monday held their first press conference since receiving political rehabilitation, saying they remained true to opposition principles and demanded the release of their leader Kem Sokha.
They had received pardons from Acting Head of State and Senate President Say Chhum last week, more than a year after the dissolution of the CNRP.
The five vowed to uphold the spirit of their former party and outlined their reasons for seeking a return of their political rights.
Ou Chanrath, a former lawmaker for Takeo province, said he and his colleagues had requested rehabilitation to help Cambodia keep its access to the EU’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme and the US’ Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). He said none of them had been paid to do so.
He said he wanted to see national reconciliation through a culture of dialogue. Unifying the CNRP was also his intention as the former opposition was breaking apart.
“Our position is that we continue demanding president Kem Sokha freed [from his charge] and rehabilitated so that he can lead our political activities,” he said.
The others, including former lawmakers Chiv Cata, Tep Sothy and Kang Kimhak, and member Chan Sela, also requested the reinstatement of the commune official roles taken away when the party was dissolved.
They said losing these positions was “seriously unjust for them and the voters”.
The five said they would not establish a new political party but maintain the spirit of the CNRP even without it.
Political analyst Em Sovannara said he was of the view that the demands of the rehabilitated officials were made to avoid criticism from supporters of being “inactive”.
“They have done this to show that they are not inactive. But they don’t have any influence to make such appeals to the ruling party regarding Kem Sokha. The request to reinstate the 5,007 former commune council positions means nothing at all because the CNRP has melted and not re-emerged.
“Reinstating the position of the 5,007 commune officials is not a realistic demand because they were the base of the structure that helped the opposition compete with the ruling party,” he said.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said those who had been rehabilitated could probably serve as the nucleus of a new party to be formed sometime in the future.
This party could reincarnate the spirit of change for the millions of people who voted for the CNRP in the 2013 national and 2017 commune elections.
“The person who was behind that change was Kem Sokha, who coined the slogan ‘Change or No Change? Change!’ They need him to be the leader of this new party and they also need the grassroots CNRP activists."
“That’s why they have set out to call for the release of Kem Sokha and the reinstatement of the CNRP commune councillors,” he said.
He said it was also in their interest to not distance themselves from Sam Rainsy, “acting president” of the CNRP, but to keep him at arms’ length so they could take his supporters to secure a large base for the new party.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday reminded local authorities to distinguish between politicians who had received rehabilitation and those who had not. He said all rights must be provided to those who had.
“Authorities at all levels and everywhere must make it easy for those who have been granted political rehabilitation, such as when meeting supporters, hiring media airtime or creating an online channel like on Facebook,” Hun Sen said.
He was speaking at a graduation ceremony of more than 1,200 students from Phnom Penh International University at the National Institute of Education.
But he made it clear that none of what he said could be done in the name of the CNRP because the party had “died and could not be re-born”.
He warned that those who had not been granted a return of their rights would face legal measures should they get involved in politics, before seemingly turning his attention to Sokha.
“Someone is still in his house but has warned others not to request the return of their political rights. I will not let you free. If the court sentences you, don’t bother me."
“It has never happened before that someone is detained and accuses others of selling their conscience. [He] smears his colleagues,” Hun Sen said.
However, Meng Sopheary, one of Sokha’s four defence lawyers, said: “Kem Sokha has never warned those who have requested their political rights or those who have not, or banned them from doing so.”