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Seven Ex-CNRP Members, Including Kem Sokha Aides, Return to Politics

FILE: In this file photo taken on May 30, 2016, Nhem Ponharith, an opposition lawmaker and spokesperson of Cambodia National Rescue Party, speaks to the press at the party's headquarter, in Phnom Penh.

Seven former Cambodia National Rescue Party officials, including a few close aides of former party president Kem Sokha, were granted political amnesty and allowed to reenter the political arena.

King Norodom Sihamoni on Saturday signed royal decrees, allowing the seven former CNRP senior members to participate in political activity. Most notably, former CNRP lawmaker Yem Ponhearith and Kem Sokha’s chief of staff, Muth Chantha, will now restart their political careers.

The five others are former lawmakers Lat Litai and Tout Khoeut and party executive members Chum Chandarin, Long Kimkhorn, and Yang Phannet.

The Supreme Court in 2017 dissolved the CNRP for allegedly attempting to overthrow the Cambodian People’s Party government in a so-called color revolution. The high court also banned 118 of the party’s senior leaders for five years.

But, in 2019 the government created an ad-hoc mechanism that allows former CNRP officials to return to politics only if they made a request to the government. So far, 21 former CNRP officials have been allowed to return to politics.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng sent a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday, forwarding the seven politicians’ request for political rehabilitation.

Sar Kheng’s letter was widely circulated Saturday morning, hours before royal decrees granting political amnesty were published by the Information Ministry, making special mention of Yem Ponhearith.

“Yem Ponhearith had been involved in diplomatic advocacy during his time abroad,” Sar Kheng writes in the letter.

“However, regarding domestic activities, all of the seven individuals have strictly complied with the court orders and have not been doing any significant activities related to politics or amounting to disturbance of national security or public orders.”

Sisowath Thomico, another CNRP executive member who is still banned, said Kem Sokha had discussed the matter with him in March.

“Yem Ponhearith and Muth Chantha decided together to make the request,” Sisowath Thomico said, adding that Tout Khoeut and Lat Litai joined because they were close to Ponhearith.

Muth Chantha and Yem Ponhearith have been close allies of Kem Sokha, and have been most visible by his side following his release from de facto house arrest in November 2019 and during the commencement of a treason trial against him in early 2020.

FILE - Cambodia's opposition leader Kem Sokha, left, talks to the media at his home before leaving for the court hearing in Phnom Penh, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.
FILE - Cambodia's opposition leader Kem Sokha, left, talks to the media at his home before leaving for the court hearing in Phnom Penh, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.

VOA Khmer was not able to contact the seven former CNRP officials for comment on Saturday.

Sisowath Thomico said he, and Kem Sokha, were not planning to request political amnesty.

Speculation has been rife if Kem Sokha will reenter the politics, following the conclusion of his treason trial. There are four CNRP-linked parties in the political fray: the Khmer Conservatism Party, Cambodia Nation Love Party, Khmer Reform Party and Khmer Will Party.

Yim Sinorn, who leads a pro-opposition migrant worker movement in South Korea, on Saturday posted a photo of himself with Sokha, supporting the former CNRP president’s decision to not request amnesty.

“With more people subsequently leaving, the cruise is getting emptier. But as long as this captain stands by his refusal to give up the cruise to navigate smaller boats, I will struggle with the remaining people to the end,” he posted on Facebook.

CPP Spokesperson Suos Yara said the ruling party welcomed the seven politicians’ decision to request a return to politics.

“The Cambodian laws are open to them. They have received their political rights back, this means it is up to them to exercise their freedom to join an existing party or to launch their own parties,” Suos Yara said.