Prime Minister Hun Sen rejected the possibility of negotiating with the former CNRP yesterday, maintaining that jailed opposition figures Kem Sokha and Um Sam An will not be pardoned, and that there would “be no second Paris peace agreement”.
Sokha, president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was arrested on widely decried charges of “treason” in September. Two months later, the CNRP – the nation’s only viable opposition party – was forced to disband at the government’s behest and 118 of its senior members were banned from politics for five years. Many fled the country fearing arrest, and party members who remained reported increased surveillance and pressure to defect to the ruling party.
The premier yesterday claimed an unnamed member of the 118 had messaged him “respectfully”, calling him “uncle” and requesting that they be allowed to re-enter the political arena.
“For the people whose political rights have been suspended, there is no law to hand back the right,” Hun Sen said, adding “this is the result of national betrayal, and this is the last message”.
In fact, there also appears to be no law permitting the 118 to be suspended in the first place. Though hasty amendments to the country’s Political Parties Law – rammed through by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party last year – empowered the Supreme Court to forcibly disband or suspend parties at the request of the Ministry of Interior, they did not account for the suspension of specific individuals.
Sokha’s arrest, meanwhile, has spurred near-universal international condemnation and repeated calls for his unconditional release. However, Hun Sen yesterday said jailed opposition figures should not expect pardons.
“Now citizens don’t think who is in jail, who is outside the country or which party is dissolved,” he said. “And for those who are already in jail, don’t expect to get pardon from Hun Sen for the third time.”
Sokha has been pardoned twice before – once after being jailed while serving as the director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and again while deputy president of the CNRP.
CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An was arrested in 2016 for “incitement” after sharing controversial Facebook posts criticising the government for allegedly ceding land to Vietnam. Opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour was arrested on similar grounds in 2015, but released last year after apologising. Yesterday Hun Sen said Sam Un would not receive similar treatment.
“You cannot get loose because you already admitted [guilt],” he said.
The premier claimed a letter requesting a pardon for Sam An was sent by both individual representatives and an unnamed “ambassador”. Sam An is a dual Cambodian-American citizen. The US Embassy did not reply to requests for comment.
“You admitted your mistake, and you said the border problem is your mistake,” Hun Sen said.
In past cycles of political tension, the ruling party has proven amenable to pardoning opposition members embroiled in politically tinged court cases. Besides Sokha’s previous pardons, former opposition leader Sam Rainsy was also pardoned in 2013, allowing him to return from self-imposed exile just prior to that year’s national election.
His arrival, however, appeared to backfire for the ruling party, with the CNRP utilising Rainsy’s long-standing popularity to galvanise support and capture some 44 percent of the vote, more than any opposition party since the country’s first democratic elections in 1993.
According to Paul Chambers, an expert on Southeast Asia at Thailand’s Naresuan University, Hun Sen appears determined not to make the same mistake again.
“By his speeches and his actions, Hun Sen is letting Cambodians and the world know that Cambodia has become his personalised fief.
All opponents will be buried,” he said.
Rainsy’s political rebirth was indeed short-lived. The CNRP boycotted parliament for a year over alleged election irregularities, and shortly after it entered the National Assembly, an old conviction – previously believed to have been overturned by the pardon – was resurrected while Rainsy was on a trip abroad. He chose to re-enter self-imposed exile, and was later forced to leave the party he helped found by new legal amendments.
On Sunday, Rainsy said he was open to negotiating with Hun Sen, but the premier also shot down that possibility yesterday.
“You failed and now you come and ask me for negotiations? You committed horrible things and insulted me, and you also called for the military to point the gun at its own government,” he said.
“You said that Hun Sen is isolated and Hun Sen faces protests inside the party, from the people and the army . . . I have no value to negotiate with you.”
Hun Sen also accused Rainsy of “adding the gasoline to the fire” of recent protests in Australia, during which Cambodian-Australians burned effigies of the premier.
“There will be no second Paris peace agreement . . . I do not talk with prisoners and traitors, and don’t ask repeatedly like a ghost asking for rice,” he said.
He further added that he would not be open to negotiating with the opposition via an international mediator.