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Democracy requires opposition leadership

Democracy requires opposition leadership

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Supporters of Sam Rainsy watch as the opposition leader holds a press conference earlier this year via a video link from Paris, where he has been living to avoid legal problems in Cambodia.

Dear Editor,

In comments recently published in The Phnom Penh Post, Constitutional Council member and political analyst Sonn Soubert described new criminal charges against Sam Rainsy as an attempt to remove the opposition leader from the country.

In His Excellency’s opinion, the treatment of the opposition leader is similar to the treatment of imprisoned Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi by the government.

These comments raise important concerns as to the increasingly distressing state of democracy in Cambodia.

In particular, the apparent efforts by the Royal Government of Cambodia to ensure that the eponymous leader of the Sam Rainsy Party is precluded from standing in the 2013 National Assembly Elections are comparable to recent legislative actions taken by the government of Myanmar that serve to exclude Suu Kyi from standing in elections later this year, and which have been described by the US state department as making a “mockery of the democratic process”.

Under new legislation passed recently, in anticipation of the first election to be held in Myanmar since 1990, Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi, the leader of the country’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, will be precluded from participation in the election on the basis that she is serving a prison sentence.

According to the US state department, the measures – which will also preclude Suu Kyi’s continued membership in the opposition party – ensure that the elections, which are expected before the end of the year, “will be devoid of credibility”.

By way of comparison, Sam Rainsy – the leader of the main opposition party here in Cambodia – has recently been convicted of racial incitement and destruction of property for uprooting demarcation posts on Cambodia’s border with Vietnam, and sentenced to two years in prison in what Human Rights Watch described as a “new extreme” in “Prime Minister Hun Sen’s campaign of persecution of critics”.

On February 26, 2010, two further charges of disinformation and falsification of documents were filed by government lawyers against Sam Rainsy after he posted a number of border maps and other documents on his party’s Web site to support his claim that the Royal Government of Cambodia has turned a blind eye to Vietnamese encroachment into Cambodian territory.

If convicted of these charges Sam Rainsy could face a sentence of up to 18 years imprisonment.

In his comments on the issue, His Excellency Sonn Soubert described the treatment of Sam Rainsy as a “political issue, not a criminal issue”.

Indeed, the comments of Hun Sen throughout the affair serve only to support this conclusion.

On February 25 – the day before the filing of new charges against Sam Rainsy was reported – Hun Sen was quoted in The Phnom Penh Post to the effect that Sam Rainsy would not be able to contest the next National Assembly election in 2013. Referring to his 2005 conviction for defamation and his subsequent Royal pardon in 2006, Hun Sen stated that “this time, the court sentenced [Sam Rainsy] to jail – no pardon this time”.

These comments are important and leave little doubt as to the pointed political motivations behind the charges against Sam Rainsy.

According to Article 34(2) of the Law on the Election of Members of National Assembly, persons who are sentenced to imprisonment on conviction of a felony or misdemeanour by the courts and who have not been rehabilitated shall not be eligible to stand as candidates for election to the National Assembly.

The Code of Criminal Procedure provides for two forms of rehabilitation: judicial rehabilitation and rehabilitation by law. Even if Sam Rainsy is not convicted of the further charges filed against him, he will not be eligible for rehabilitation until three years after completing his two-year sentence for racial incitement and destruction of property.

He will, therefore, be precluded from standing in the 2013 National Assembly election.

On March 12, 2010, Hun Sen was quoted in The Phnom Penh Post to the effect that opposition members disappointed by the drafting process and passage of the Anticorruption Law by the National Assembly ought to put their energies into winning the National Assembly election in 2013.

In view of the efforts by the Royal Government of Cambodia to preclude the leader of the main opposition party from the next election, questions need to be asked about the credibility of the democratic process in Cambodia and whether the next election – much like the one expected to take place in Myanmar before the end of the year – will be “devoid of credibility”.

Ou Virak, president
Cambodian Centre for Human Rights

Send letters to: [email protected] or PO?Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length. The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.

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