In less than an hour, ruling party members of Cambodia’s National Assembly yesterday passed contentious amendments to the Law on Political Parties that could see their chief rivals rapidly dissolved, a step observers said was the latest in a string of legislative attacks on rights and freedoms in the Kingdom.
Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday sat impassive at the plenary session – which was boycotted by the Cambodia National Rescue Party – and remained silent on the widely criticised changes, which would see parties disbanded if their leadership hold criminal convictions, a routine state of affairs for CNRP members given a litany of court cases widely believed politically motivated.
Former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who quit the CNRP last week in anticipation of yesterday’s vote, took to Twitter proclaiming that the swift passage of the law “marks one of the darkest days for Cambodia since the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991”.
“The [international] community must address the fact that they paid for a democratic system which is now lurching towards a one-party state,” he said.
Reached yesterday in Paris, Rainsy defended his former party’s no-show at the vote, saying “there was no point in them showing up for a CPP rubber-stamping”.
“At this stage, the option to dissolve the CNRP is still in the realm of threat. It would be reckless in the extreme, and in complete disregard of the popular will, for the CPP to implement it,” he added.
In response to a question posed by Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin during yesterday’s session, asking if parties could still be dissolved if a lawmaker was stripped of their leadership role, fellow lawmaker Chheang Vun responded: “If this law is issued and a party has a problem, it is necessary that [we] must enforce it absolutely according to the meaning of this law.”
Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua yesterday said the “limited debate” was why her party refused to “legitimise” the process with their attendance.
“The huge, huge danger is that this law kills democracy in Cambodia, this law divides the nation,” she said, adding that even a woman wearing a black shirt on a Monday, as with recent “Black Monday” protests, could be deemed a “threat to national security”.
“It is so very clear that they are using the judiciary to determine the fate of the political parties.”
Other small political parties, such as the Grassroots Democratic Party and the Khmer Power Party, yesterday slammed the changes, saying they gave unprecedented powers to the Ministry of Interior and violated the spirit of the constitution.
“This government is not walking the road to democracy, it is on the way to a dictatorship,” said the KPP’s Sourn Serey Ratha, himself previously convicted, then pardoned, for “treason”.
That sentiment was echoed by Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, who said the amendments to the 1997 law “could sound the death knell for multiparty democracy in Cambodia”, and that the human rights ramifications were “grave”.
Sopheap said in the wake of the shock success of the CNRP in the 2013 elections, the CPP has adopted legal tactics – including last year’s Trade Union Law and 2015’s law governing NGOs, as well as imprisoning political activists and human rights defenders – to restrict fundamental freedoms.
“The slew of regressive legislation, which has characterised the fifth mandate of the National Assembly, constitutes an attempt to legitimise a campaign designed to silence critical voices and legitimate opposition,” she said via email.
Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, yesterday said the laws signalled “the final consolidation of absolute power in the hands of Hun Sen” and “the triumph of dictatorship”.
“The silence of foreign governments and aid donors to this move has been profoundly disheartening, reflecting a failure to stand up for democratic principles and human rights when facing a determined, dictatorial plan,” he said in an email.
The US Embassy issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” with the step and that banning political parties would call into question the legitimacy of upcoming elections.
National Assembly spokesman Leng Peng Long, meanwhile, defended the 22 changes, which he said would create “a proper political atmosphere”.
“In every country, the majority parties are the passers of the law,” he said, adding that if another party won in 2018, they too could alter the law.