Prime Minister Hun Sen has said Sam Rainsy, a leader of the former opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, is responsible for divisions in the party amid a call for ex-CNRP politicians who were banned from politics to seek pardons and disavow their membership.
Rainsy had publicly stated that the divisions, caused by the offer of royal pardons for more than 100 former CNRP officials who were banned from political life when the party was dissolved in late 2017, were the fault of Hun Sen.
But in a speech last week, Hun Sen blamed the divisions on Rainsy’s apparent lack of leadership.
“They said Hun Sen could do nothing that’s why he tried to break them up,” Hun Sen said. “My message to you [Rainsy] is that if you let others break you up, then you don’t deserve to be the leader.”
So far nine former CNRP officials have taken up the prime minister’s offer of an amnesty ahead of a deadline for applications in April.
Hun Sen went on to criticize the CNRP leadership for alleging those who took the offer were paid off by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
“You mocked your former colleagues like a commodity, that's your failure,” Hun Sen said. “When they were with you, you always said they were good people. Once they didn’t agree with you, you always accused the Hun Sen government of buying them off. You consider your former colleagues who contributed to your success as a commodity.”
A former member of parliament, Tep Sothy, defended her decision to take the prime minister’s offer.
“I think this is a solution, that I expressed myself as a former member of parliament,” Sothy told VOA Khmer. “This is to calm people’s feeling that they have a representative inside the country to solve their problem. It’s not just a political move for me. I’m okay if I’m not in politics, but I cannot stand idly”.
The Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in late 2017 after charging its president, Kem Sokha, with treason for allegedly conspiring with the United States to overthrow Hun Sen. Washington and the opposition have denied the charges and the government has yet to produce evidence to substantiate them.
CNRP leaders who have since fled the country say they do not recognize the legitimacy of the decision to dissolve the party. The international community, led by the United States and the European Union, have asked the Cambodian government to restore the CNRP’s legal status.
Sothy said her decision to return to politics does not mean she recognizes the court's ruling.
“It was not right but under the current circumstances, we have to look further, that sometimes democracy moves forwards two steps, but backward five.
“Right now, I see that it is stepping backward, but as a lawmaker, I don’t want it to slide back. Therefore, I have to show my goodwill despite criticism... I have to be close to the people.”
Rainsy has called for party members to ignore the call for a reinstatement of their political rights.
“This is to show the international community, especially the delegation of the European Union that they should not believe Hun Sen for saying that he has given back political rights to CNRP officials and that he has rehabilitated us,” Rainsy said in a video message posted on his Facebook account last week. “This is a fraud. If we surrender to Hun Sen, if we ask for political rights from Hun Sen, he will tell the EU that you see there is no need to demand that the CNRP function again because even CNRP officials have abandoned the party to set up smaller parties.”
A delegation of the European Union was in Cambodia last week to meet with key Cambodian officials, including Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, and Commerce Minister Pan Sorasak, to discuss a number of issues as part of their monitoring and evaluation before suspending Cambodia’s membership of the Everything But Arms preferential trade scheme if the government refuses to restore the former opposition and improve human rights.
But Hun Sen has remained defiant, saying opposition leaders will die abroad without having a chance to return to politics in Cambodia.
“Sorry, the CPP can’t do that,” said Hun Sen. “They need Hun Sen to lead the party.”