In a series of unprecedented moves, prime minister-designate Hun Sen brokered royal pardons for a growing list of incarcerated political activists – from Boeung Kak community leader Tep Vanny earlier this month to a group of 14 Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) officials who were freed on Tuesday.
While he has credited the pardon moves to his own “kindness”, many analysts have pointed to Western criticisms of the July 29 national elections, which proceeded without the court-dissolved CNRP and its former president who is in pre-trial detention.
The releases come less than two weeks after the National Election Committee (NEC) announced the final results of the poll, confirming that the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had swept all 125 seats in the National Assembly. This marks the first time in the Kingdom’s modern history when a single party has controlled parliament.
Hun Sen, who has led Cambodia for more than 33 years, requested King Norodom Sihamoni to grant the royal pardons to Vanny, CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An, and Meach Sovannara and 13 others who were sentenced over a political rally in Freedom Park.
Additionally, two former Radio Free Asia journalists who were charged with espionage and production of pornography were released on bail earlier this month.
On Tuesday, Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan wrote on his Facebook page that only the prime minister had the privilege of requesting pardons from the King. Siphan attributed Hun Sen’s actions to his “virtue”.
Paul Chambers, a political analyst and international affairs adviser at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said on Tuesday that Hun Sen’s decision to release political prisoners is aimed at “diminishing frustration” from the West which sees the election as a sham and a gross violation of human rights.
He said the moves will allow Hun Sen’s government to benefit from “trade, investment and aid from the West as well as [giving them a] chance not to sink Cambodia into even greater Chinese dependence”.
“Some Western countries are just looking for any excuse to improve ties with Prime Minister Hun Sen, so they can do more business with Cambodia. Such countries will likely use the release of political prisoners to resume normal relations with Cambodia. However, other countries will be less likely to do so,” he said.
Also on Tuesday, the former CNRP president Sam Rainsy wrote on his Facebook page that he is happy about the release of “political prisoners” and that he admired their courage and patience.
“CNRP president Kem Sokha also will be released shortly because Hun Sen, under international pressure, has to meet a deadline ... I can specify that the immediate release of all political prisoners without conditions is only the first condition that Hun Sen must fulfil under international pressure,” Rainsy wrote.
Other conditions coming from international leaders, he said, included reinstatement of the CNRP, lifting a ban on political activity imposed on 118 CNRP officials, and dropping all judicial charges against civil society and media organisations.
However, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan denied that international pressure had led to the sudden spike in royal pardons.
“Our direction is not because of threats or pressure from abroad or the political heat dying down. People across the country had expressed their will through democratic, free, and fair elections,” he said, adding that Hun Sens’ actions were all in accordance to the law.
“We know that our country is independent and sovereign. Our decisions depend on the actual reality in Cambodia, not on requests, threats or external pressures,” he said.
US politicians have recently been taking the lead in criticising the Cambodian government. For instance, visa restrictions have been ramped up against senior Kingdom officials over what the Western power considers an “undermining of democracy”.
Last month, US officials deemed the July 29 poll “flawed and neither free nor fair” in addition to demanding Sokha’s release.
A US Embassy spokeswoman in Phnom Penh declined to offer any comments when asked about the recent series of pardons.