The Senate, as predicted, passed contentious changes to the Law on Political Parties yesterday in a bid to erase – in some cases literally – opposition figure Sam Rainsy from Cambodia’s political scene.
The move came a day after Moody’s Investors Service – one of the world’s “big three” credit rating agencies – warned the amended law betrayed the ruling Cambodian People’s Party preoccupation with holding on to power at the expense of cultivating favourable business conditions.
The amendments – which prohibit a party from using the image, voice or written materials of a convicted criminal – were passed by the National Assembly last week following a request from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s 50 senators, 42 were present and unanimously supported the entirety of the controversial changes, which were sent to the Senate floor as a matter of “urgency”.
The changes target former Cambodia National Rescue Party President Rainsy, who has a slew of politically tinged convictions to his name for defamation and incitement.
Rainsy was forced to resign his presidency earlier this year or face his party’s forced dissolution following a previous round of amendments to the same law.
The proposed new changes align with “free multiparty democracy” and would “strengthen the rule of law”, according to a Senate press statement.
“This law proposal also refers to the promotion of rights and the duty of every Khmer citizen . . . [and] the rights, obligation and responsibility of every political party to guarantee proper respect according the constitution and the law,” it read.
However, in a statement on Monday, Moody’s appeared to disagree, calling the amendments a “setback to efforts to strengthen governance”. While the CPP has long made rising economic development and foreign investment a key part of its platform, Moody’s analysis said the latest development was “credit-negative”.
“The amended Law on Political Parties follows other attempts to centralise power and suggests the government has a negative-credit focus on consolidating its electoral position ahead of July 2018 elections, putting reforms to address institutional weaknesses, particularly corruption, on the back burner,” Moody’s analysis read.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the amendments “would entail multiple, blatant violations of the Cambodian Constitution” and “would leave Cambodian democracy hanging by a thread”.
“We call upon the Constitutional Council and the King to reject this attempted subversion of democratic principles,” she said via email. “The typically rushed legislative process and lack of consultation – a standard tactic of the Cambodian government when pushing through unpopular or unconstitutional legislation – is depriving Cambodian citizens of their right to participate in public life.”
The Sam Rainsy Party’s 11 senators chose to boycott the vote, said SRP Senator Teav Vannol. “The political amendments are not serving the Cambodian people. That law just targets individuals,” he said.
“We send a strong message when we boycott. For myself, I attended the Senate Standing Committee meeting [last week] and I raised my hand to request not to send [the amendments] to the floor.”
Apart from forbidding collusion with convicts, the law also prohibits political parties from being named after any individual, so once the amendments become law, SRP senators will be required to select a new party name for the remaining six months of their term.
The CNRP has already begun the mammoth task of replacing their signage across the Kingdom – swapping the soon-to-be-banned image of Rainsy and current CNRP President Kem Sokha for its rising sun logo.
The changes to the law also ban using the image of an individual in a party’s logo, and could potentially impact the royalist Funcinpec party, whose leader, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, is prominently pictured in the party’s emblem. Spokesman Nheb Bun Chin yesterday said he had received no clarification from the government on that point.
Even before the controversial changes, the law also banned the use of religious iconography in party logos, though the CPP has insisted that the devada angel featured in its emblem is “not related to anything religious or non-religious”.
The new amendments will be sent to the Constitutional Council today, and must still be signed by the King before they come into effect.