Cambodia's Ministry of Interior on Thursday refused to recognize the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party's (CNRP) new leadership, disputing claims by the party that the ministry had no objections to the appointments it made earlier this month during an extraordinary congress.
The announcement once again throws the CNRP's political legitimacy into question ahead of local commune elections slated for June 4.
In a statement issued Wednesday after a meeting between CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhai Eang and director-general of the Ministry of Interior Prak Sam Oeun, the opposition party said the ministry "acknowledges the process of the CNRP extraordinary congress" and "does not object to the amendment of Articles 45 and 47 of the CNRP's statute."
On Thursday, the ministry refuted that claim, issuing a statement which said that the CNRP had made "an attempt to misinterpret the real essence of what being discussed during the meeting" and saying the talks centered on "compliance with the laws [not] any political solution."
The statement went on to explain the ministry's position that the CNRP's March 2 extraordinary congress-during which the opposition appointed Kem Sokha president, and Mu Sochua, Pol Ham and Eng Chhay Eang as party deputies-was "against article 47 of the CNRP's statute, which is the supreme law of this party."
Ahead of the CNRP's appointments at the congress, the party had voted to amend articles 45 and 47 of its by-laws-removing an 18-month moratorium on appointing a new president and changing the structure of the party's leadership.
On March 22, the Ministry of Interior ruled in a letter to the CNRP that the party had violated its own by-laws by holding the congress and appointing Kem Sokha, based on documents filed at the CNRP's launch in May 2013. On Thursday, the ministry reiterated its stance, again referring to the four-year-old statute.
Opposition officials contend that the CNRP was compelled to convene the congress and amend its statute before a new ruling party-initiated law on political parties went into effect, or risk being dissolved, because the law only provided it with 90 days to elect new leadership.
Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy resigned on Feb. 11 in order to preserve the party in the face of the new law that also bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party, among other changes. He has been living in self-imposed exile in France since 2015 to avoid convictions many see as politically motivated.
After Wednesday's meeting, Prak Sam Oeun appeared to contradict the CNRP's claims that the Ministry of Interior had no objections to the results of the opposition extraordinary congress while speaking with the media outside the ministry.
The director-general told reporters that the ministry will be "keeping an eye on the CNRP" to ensure the party's compliance with its by-laws, but made no mention of its stance on the opposition's extraordinary congress or amendments to Articles 45 and 47.
He also suggested that any violation would be forgotten if the CNRP abandoned its campaign slogan of "replace the commune chiefs who serve the party with commune chiefs who serve the people," which the ministry has said goes against election laws and the spirit of democracy.
The CNRP has said it won't modify the motto and will permit party activists to use it while campaigning for commune elections this summer.
On Thursday, Sam Rainsy called those who have found the CNRP's extraordinary congress to be in violation of the party's by-laws "naA�ve" and said they must learn to appreciate the right of the people to form associations and parties if they claim to respect the principles of democracy.
"People are entitled to make their own decisions regarding any creation or amendment of their own statute or regulations, at their own will-they don't need to ask permission or seek approval [from the Ministry of Interior]," the former CNRP president told RFA's Khmer Service in an interview.
"A party congress represents the voice of all its members. Any decision rendered by the congress shall be abided by the party's members. At least, that is how democracy works. What the CNRP has done is correct and I support it."
Speaking to supporters on Thursday, Kem Sokha said that he would remain the rightful president of the CNRP "no matter how others view the party's statute."
A report by the Phnom Penh Post cited Hang Puthea, spokesperson for Cambodia's National Election Committee, as saying that even if Kem Sokha is only considered the "acting president," the CNRP's candidate lists would remain valid for the June polls.
Also on Thursday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Sam Rainsy in absentia to 20 months in prison for incitement and defamation, adding to a previous five-year term, and ordered him to pay a fine of 10 million riel (U.S. $2,500) to the state and a symbolic fine of 100 riel (U.S. $0.02) to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The sentencing coincided with the 20th anniversary of a grenade attack by still-unknown assailants on a rally led by Sam Rainsy, which killed at least 16 and wounded more than 100.
The case against Sam Rainsy stems from a lawsuit Hun Sen filed against the former opposition chief for suggesting that his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) was behind the July murder of political analyst Kem Ley. Sam Rainsy had called the killing "state-backed terrorism."
Sam Rainsy's defense lawyer, Sam Sokong, called Thursday's decision "unjust."
"The judgment is unfair to my client," he told RFA, adding that he would consult with Sam Rainsy about whether to appeal the ruling.
Ky Tech, a lawyer representing Hun Sen, said he was unsatisfied with the length of Sam Rainsy's sentence.
"I think the sentence is not commensurate with Sam Rainsy's crime," he said, adding that the former CNRP president had "caused great damage to our government and leader."
Kem Ley, 46, was gunned down on the morning of July 10, 2016 as he stopped for coffee in a Star Mart store at a gasoline station on a busy intersection in the capital.
Last week, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced a former soldier named Oueth Ang to life in prison as the sole perpetrator of Kem Ley's murder, but observers have questioned his testimony and said the investigation did not go far enough bring the masterminds behind the plot to justice.
Just days before he was gunned down, Kem Ley had discussed on a RFA Khmer Service call-in show a report by London-based Global Witness detailing the extent of the wealth of the family of Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 31 years.
Political commentator Meas Ny told RFA Thursday that he was unsurprised by the court's ruling against Sam Rainsy, which he added had been "long anticipated."
"We have been aware from the beginning that [Hun Sen] would win," he said.
CNRP officials have warned that the CPP seeks to prevent the opposition from standing in the June elections through a variety of different measures, including the passage of the political party law.
The CPP won more than 70 percent of the vote and secured 1,592 of 1,633 communes in Cambodia's 2012 local elections, held before the CNRP was formed. The opposition party won nearly half of the vote in the general election the following year.
Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP, which has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years, a run for its money in the June polls-a race that many believe may foreshadow the general election in 2018.
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