The National Assembly swiftly passed controversial new measures yesterday to effectively ban former opposition leader Sam Rainsy from the political arena or from bolstering the opposition’s firepower ahead of next year’s elections.
The amendments to the Law on Political Parties are the second round of changes this year, following an earlier amendment that forced Rainsy to resign as the president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in February to avoid the possible dissolution of his party, just months ahead of the commune elections.
But the sustained attack on Rainsy – who is currently in self-imposed exile in France, and would face jail time if he returned to Cambodia due to a slew of politically tinged criminal cases – will strengthen rather than diminish the potency of his political rhetoric, Rainsy and some political analysts said yesterday.
Rainsy yesterday goaded the premier over the latest changes, which he branded the “Anti-Sam Rainsy Law”.
“I am honoured to be Hun Sen’s constant obsession,” Rainsy said, while still urging the prime minister to “push for the adoption of really useful laws aimed at putting things right in a country that is just upside down”. “He must now understand that his efforts to get rid of me – whatever the means he uses – have been and will remain useless, futile and counterproductive.”
Rainsy also suggested there were “millions of Sam Rainsys” in the Cambodian citizens who fight for freedom and justice, and claimed he had attained near-mythological status.
“As in any religion, legend or myth, the more you strive to kill the central figure, the more he remains alive and becomes more and more vibrant and popular,” he said.
After less than an hour of debate, the amendments were passed by the assembly with 66 votes, though Prime Minister Hun Sen and Interior Minister Sar Kheng were conspicuously absent from the session. The CNRP, which holds 55 seats to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s 68, boycotted the vote.
CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua yesterday defended her party’s decision not to attend the National Assembly and argue against the laws.
“It’s the same question asked each time we decided not to be there. Would there be a true democratic debate?” Sochua said in an email, adding she doubted the law would have its intended effect.
“That law will bring together the voices of other democrats to stand with the CNRP,” Sochua said. “It’s the case each time the CPP passes a law or uses its power to threaten, arrest, or eliminate the voice of its critics.”
The new amendments ban parties from “using the voice, image, written documents or activities of a convicted criminal . . . for the interests of the party”, and from “accepting or conspiring with a convicted criminal to do activities in the interests of the party”. Currently Rainsy appears – along with his successor Kem Sokha – on thousands of party billboards across the country and is a regular presence, via Skype, at opposition events.
The new law also prevents political parties from “supporting or organising any plans or conspiracies with any individual to undertake any actions against the interest of the Kingdom of Cambodia”.
Any parties who violate the law could be banned from political activities for five years and disallowed from competing in elections, or even dissolved.
Though the premier was absent yesterday, his youngest son, CPP lawmaker Hun Many, made an impassioned speech advocating for the changes, saying they were a matter of “national security”. “We should consider if some views or some words can affect the security of the nation and affect the interests of the nation,” Many said.
But despite the amendments, political analyst Meas Ny said that for many Cambodians, Rainsy remained an effective and charismatic leader. “He can still drive up the support, the way he speaks is very colourful and he has the ability to compete directly with Hun Sen.”
Sebastian Strangio, political analyst and author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said while it might be smarter for the CPP to ignore Rainsy rather than launch a new legal offensive, the changes were likely sparked by frustration that – through Facebook – Rainsy continues to enjoy a political platform.
“It does seem to be an instance of overkill,” Strangio said, saying the ruling party were driven by “fear and paranoia” over foreign intervention and losing power.
Strangio said he believed the CPP was “trying to remove Sam Rainsy by the root from the CNRP” in order to avoid a repeat of the opposition momentum Rainsy garnered in the 2013 national election.
Meanwhile, the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights yesterday called the ruling party’s move to reconfigure the law as “legal harassment” of the major opposition.
The changes still must be approved by the Senate and Constitutional Council before being signed by the King into law.