Local authorities across the country have begun barring commune-level Cambodia National Rescue Party officials from working and erasing all visible reminders of the nation’s largest opposition party, which was dissolved on Thursday by an unprecedented and widely condemned Supreme Court decision.
A nine-judge panel agreed with Ministry of Interior lawyers that the CNRP had violated the controversial Law on Political Parties for allegedly attempting a so-called colour revolution and, with immediate effect, outlawed the primary opposition party and banned 118 of its senior members from participating in the political activity for five years.
The Ministry of Interior on Friday sent out four directives announcing the removal of the party from its list of political entities, calling for the dismantling of party banners and logos from public and private places, freezing the salaries of elected CNRP officials and asking governors to educate citizens about the Supreme Court’s verdict.
Local officials could be seen removing party billboards across the country, including at the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh’s Chak Angre commune, where the party itself complied with the directive.
Additionally, CNRP commune chiefs and councillors were told by district or provincial authorities to leave their offices and to hand over their commune chief stamps.
“Yes, most of them have already given the stamps. Even in O’Char commune, which is very loyal [to the CNRP], they have already given the stamp,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, referring to the Battambang commune that elected the popular CNRP Commune Chief Sin Rozeth.
“But the implementation, some places were very quick, and some are still in the process,” he added.
Sopheak said the next senior councillor in each commune would take over as acting chief. A recent amendment to the Law on the Election of Commune/Sangkat Councils – pushed through by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in the lead-up to the CNRP’s dissolution – gives the National Election Committee (NEC) two weeks to redistribute a dissolved party’s local elected positions. Thanks to the revisions, the CPP will absorb the 489 communes won by the CNRP, giving it control of every commune in the country, save one.
Rozeth said yesterday that Battambang town Deputy Governor Leang Veasna was waiting for her at the commune hall on Friday morning, and took away her stamp and asked all CNRP councillors to leave the premises.
She claimed that the involuntary handover took place before the Ministry of Interior issued its directives, and said she had wanted to continue working until she was officially barred from doing so.
“I regret that I had no chance to serve the people even on the last day,” she said, adding that on the November 18 she returned to commune hall to find the locks had been changed.
In a video she posted on Friday of the interaction, Rozeth informs Veasna that she had purchased a few computers and a printer for the office, but wanted other officials to continue using them to serve her constituents.
In Phnom Penh, Doeuk Than, former CNRP chief for Stung Meanchey I commune, said the commune clerk had already taken the stamp before he could get to the office on Friday, but he still assisted local officials with some pending work.
“On the 17th, the district officials came to check how many birth records [were pending],” he said. “So, I made notes for them. The district governor did not allow me to sign on anything anymore.”
Additionally, Morn Phalla, former head of the CNRP’s executive committee in the capital, said some opposition officials were being intimidated and forced to defect to the ruling party.
“The CPP invited CNRP councillors to have a meeting with them to defect to the CPP, using the excuse of the Supreme Court’s decision to dissolve the CNRP,” he said. Phalla left the country following a court summons related to an altercation at a commune election rally.
Party co-founder and former President Sam Rainsy also spoke to Voice of America, saying that fellow co-founder and the party’s president at the time of its dissolution, Kem Sokha, was still head of the party and that they would not recognise the “hellish decision of the hellish court that followed the hellish government of Hun Sen”. Rainsy is currently in self-imposed exile, while Sokha is in pre-trial detention in a Tbong Khmum province prison over accusations of “treason”.
“I appeal to commune councillors who were elected from the CNRP to please stand strong,” he said in the interview. “The citizens and armed forces at all levels have to demand that Hun Sen step down, or at least change his politics.”
Rainsy did not respond to questions on whether he was calling for protests and demonstrations in the country, but former CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua said he was not because they did not want to endanger the safety of their elected officials and supporters.
“We don’t want to push anyone and then they go to jail,” said Sochua, who also fled the country to avoid arrest. “Which is why we are pushing from the outside. You don’t have to be physically protesting to want democracy.”
Sochua called the Supreme Court decision a “huge mistake” by Prime Minister Hun Sen, adding that the overzealousness of authorities to prevent elected CNRP officials from working was only to please their “boss”.
At the same time, the National Election Committee asked six political parties that also contested the 2013 national elections to submit candidate lists so the electoral body can begin the process of redistributing the CNRP’s 55 National Assembly seats.
A recent slew of controversial amendments to the Law on Election of the Members of the National Assembly – also rushed through parliament ahead of the dissolution – gives the NEC one week to redistribute the seats of a dissolved entity to other political parties, excluding the ruling party. The royalist Funcinpec party, which had filed a complaint to the Ministry of Interior calling for the CNRP’s dissolution, is expected to take the lion’s share of its seats.
“In the law, the NEC has to give the seats in seven days after the NEC receives a letter from the Ministry of Interior. The NEC has received this letter on November 17,”said NEC Deputy Secretary-General Som Sorida.
Additional reporting by Ananth Baliga and Ben Sokhean