A COALITION of civil society groups has criticised the filing of new criminal charges against opposition leader Sam Rainsy, calling for a “political solution” to the current row with the government.
On Friday, government lawyers filed two more charges against the embattled Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) president, accusing him of falsifying public documents in order to prove Vietnamese encroachment into Svay Rieng province.
“In Phnom Penh we have charged him with two offences. The first is involved with falsifying public documents, and the other is for spreading disinformation,” Ky Tech, a government lawyer, said on Sunday. If found guilty on both counts, he said, Sam Rainsy could face up to 18 years in prison.
On Friday, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), a coalition of 23 local NGOs, said the new lawsuits had shined a light on the shrinking of the country’s democratic space, calling for all parties to come together in a spirit of “national reconciliation”.
“CHRAC … urges our political leaders to mutually respect each other and negotiate with political maturity in order to address national issues,” the statement read.
The new charges come after Svay Rieng provincial court sentenced Sam Rainsy to two years in prison in absentia on January 27 in relation to an October incident in which he joined villagers in uprooting six temporary border markers in Chantrea district. Villagers alleged that Vietnamese authorities planted the posts in their rice fields.
In January, the SRP released what it described as “unprecedented evidence” that four Vietnamese border markers in Svay Rieng sit well inside Cambodia’s legal territory as defined by French and American maps.
CHRAC’s chairman, Hang Chhaya, said that using the court for an endless procession of lawsuits was useless and added that a political resolution would allow people to “live in peace”. “This is intimidation – it affects the democratic process,” he said.
“We must guarantee safety for people so that they can live in peace. Resorting to the courts for lawsuits like this is useless.”
When contacted on Sunday, SRP spokesman Kimsour Phirith said that, despite what he described as intimidation on the part of the ruling party, the opposition was not scared and would continue voicing concerns about the Vietnamese border.
“Their aim is to remove Sam Rainsy from the country so that he does not disturb their affairs which were done already. This is a political issue, not a criminal issue as they are saying,” he said.
Some observers said the new lawsuits were aimed at preventing the SRP leader from participating in the 2013 elections. “I think it’s a kind of threat, to give an example for other people who dare to do the same thing,” said Son Soubert, a member of the Constitution Council and an independent political analyst, comparing the attacks on Sam Rainsy to the treatment of Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
“The government, for the interests of all Cambodian people, should seriously dialogue with the opposition. Instead of listening to that foreign country, they should listen to their own compatriots.” He added: “There should be a serious investigation of all the maps by a neutral party.”
The Vietnamese border issue last prompted a government crackdown in 2005, when critics came out in opposition to the government’s border-demarcation treaty with Vietnam – the basis, along with a 1985 treaty, for the current demarcation efforts.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the government’s offensive against Sam Rainsy was an indication that the situation on the eastern border was still a sore issue for Prime Minister Hun Sen even after the 2005-06 crackdown.
He also said it had distracted attention from Hun Sen’s own border stand-off with Thailand observing that the filing of the charges was bookended by two visits by Hun Sen to address soldiers at the Thai border and rally support for the military. “I’m sure the government is not happy that the issue is back again,” Ou Virak said.