In 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court disbanded the main opposition party at the behest of Prime Minister Hun Sen and imposed a five-year ban on 118 of its members from entering politics, effectively squelching any political opposition to the strongman who has ruled the country for 37 years.
On Wednesday, that ban expired, allowing the former members of the Cambodian National Rescue Party, or CNRP, to re-enter politics ahead of general elections scheduled for July.
While nearly half of the CNRP politicians have been convicted of crimes such as incitement and conspiracy to overthrow the government, about 50-60 have not been charged with any offenses and are eligible to become involved in politics again, said CNRP Vice President Eng Chhai Eang, who is among those convicted, and who now lives in the United States.
“I am doing politics from abroad where I have full freedom to advocate against dictators who are taking Cambodia for their personal benefits,” Eng Chhai Eang said. “For the five past years, people haven’t remained still. Hun Sen can’t sleep peacefully.”
The main reason Hun Sen dissolved the CNRP was because he realized that the opposition party could be the backbone of the power struggle and possibly derail his plan to transfer power to his son, Hun Manet, said Um Sam An, a senior CNRP official who fled to the U.S. on account of political persecution.
During the past five years, Hun Sen’s government has become increasingly authoritarian, cracking down on fundamental freedoms, violating human rights, and arresting and imprisoning political and social activists.
Hun Sen is still afraid of losing power because he lacks self-confidence and because Cambodians continue to advocate for freedom, despite government repression, Um Sam An said.
“After the dissolution of the CNRP, Hun Sen wanted to rule like in North Korea,” he said. “He is holding fake elections without the participation of the opposition party.”
New opposition: Candlelight Party
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party claimed a sweeping victory in nationwide elections for local councils held in June, though the current opposition party, the Candlelight Party, said were marred by widespread fraud. Founded by Sam Rainsy, co-founder and acting president of the CNRP, the Candlelight Party resumed political activity in October 2021 after being inactive since 2012.
Sam Rainsy, who fled to France in 2015 to avoid arrest for various charges his supporters say were politically motivated, said the CNRP is still going strong despite the government ban.
“Five years ago, the CNRP was only dissolved on paper,” he said. “Only Hun Sen’s regime thought that the CNRP was dissolved.”
Democratic countries still recognize the CNRP and San Rainsy as its acting president, he added.
“They recognize and value me as a person who is the representative of half the voters in the country. Nothing has changed me,” Sam Rainsy said.
Sok Ey San, spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said Cambodia is a democracy that is not experiencing a political crisis that would require the government to negotiate with the opposition and resolve the issue.
“The Supreme Court’s verdict dissolved the CNRP so there is no hope that the CNRP will be revived regardless of how many years it will take,” he said.
But Kien Ponlok, secretary general of the Federation of Cambodian Intellectual Students, said democracy in Cambodia is on the decline because of the arrest and imprisonment of political and social activists.
He urged the government to restore democracy ahead of the 2023 national elections at the request of the U.S., which would enable Cambodia to avoid sanctions imposed by the international community.
“While political activists are still being held in custody, democratic space in Cambodia is still not moving forward,” Kien Ponlok said. “Cambodia might become a dictatorial regime.”
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