Opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Wednesday linked the actions of the ruling party in recent weeks a “constitutional coup” that seeks a single-party Cambodia.
Sam Rainsy, the president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, remains abroad, facing arrest in a 2008 defamation case should he return. On Monday, he was stripped of his seat at the National Assembly and his parliamentary immunity, following the release of a warrant for his arrest by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Sam Rainsy faces two years in jail should he return and be arrested. His vice president, Kem Sokha, was recently ousted from a senior position at the National Assembly, following the severe beating of two opposition lawmakers in the aftermath of anti-opposition demonstrations supported by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In a Facebook post Wednesday, Sam Rainsy compared the CPP’s actions to those of 1997, when Hun Sen’s main political rival, Prince Norodom Ranarridh, was removed from a power-sharing agreement with the CPP after a violent coup.
“The arrest warrant against me as CNRP president in spite of my parliamentary immunity and, finally, my expulsion from the National Assembly in my capacity as parliamentary opposition leader by a single vote of my parliamentary colleagues from the ruling party, practically concluded the elimination of the only opposition party represented in Parliament and shows that Cambodia is now back to a one-party system, like before the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements,” Sam Rainsy wrote Wednesday. “In fact, the latest moves by the CPP represent a constitutional coup with the same legal and political consequences as the military coup they staged on 5 and 6 July, 1997.”
The 1997 coup, in which over one hundred political opponents to the CPP were either killed or went missing, firmly put the CPP in control of Cambodia, following years of attempts at power sharing between Hun Sen and Prince Ranarridh.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan dismissed the comparison, saying opposition lawmakers have broken the law. Kem Sokha was legally removed from his position as vice president of the National Assembly because his speeches to supporters constituted an attempt to “topple” the government, Sok Eysan said. Sam Rainsy’s removal from parliament was done following the constitution and the law, he said.
Still, the recent actions by the CPP have been roundly condemned. On Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon joined the US and others in the international community in condemning the arrest warrant and other actions, calling them “worrisome developments.”
“The Secretary-General urges the Cambodian People’s Party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party to resume their cooperation and dialogue and encourages all political players to refrain from violence, intimidation and harassment,” Ban’s office said in a statement. “A non-threatening environment of democratic dialogue is essential for political stability and a peaceful society.”
Sam Rainsy also said this week that Myanmar’s successful election has made Cambodia’s leaders nervous.
“The most recent developments in Cambodia, including the arrest warrant against me as opposition leader, show that the historic resounding election victory of the democratic opposition in Myanmar has created panic among the last surviving dictators in our part of the world,” he wrote. “But the wind of freedom that is blowing throughout the world will also reach Cambodia in the very near future.”
However concerning his exile may be, political analysts say it may be an overstatement for Sam Rainsy to compare himself to Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won historic elections earlier this month.
Kem Ley, a social researcher and political observer, told VOA Khmer that Sam Rainsy is not viewed as heroically as Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for years before Myanmar’s democratic reform. However, he said, she could be a good role model for him. “Sam Rainsy speaks a lot, but he does not do much,” Kem Ley said. Now he must negotiate with the CPP for his return and “to resume the rule of law in nation.”
Ou Virak, head of the think tank Future Forum, said Sam Rainsy’s decision to remain outside of Cambodia, rather than face arrest, demonstrates a difference between him and Suu Kyi. “She dared to do things in her nation,” he said. “But Sam Rainsy did not dare to. He is always afraid and does not possess that kind of heroism. So there is anger toward him, anger that his comparison is not true.”
Sam Rainsy’s defenders say he feared for his safety and the safety of his supporters and has therefore postponed his return to Cambodia.
“In Burma, the military did not aggressively arrest Aung San Suu Kyi,” Rescue Party lawmaker Eng Chhai Eang said. “They only put her in the house arrest and did not allowed her to engage in politics. It was non-violent. The delay for Sam Rainsy is for him to avoid any risks for the people and the nation.”
The Rescue Party met Wednesday to determine a way to ease the political tensions, he said.
Paul Chambers, a political professor at Chiang Mai University, said the recent tensions point to a worrisome trend. “It is as if the CPP wants to divide the CNRP and destroy its leaders to guarantee a victory for the CPP in 2018,” he wrote in an email. “Increasingly, Hun Sen appears as the Robert Mugabe of Southeast Asia.”
Meanwhile, the US Embassy has called for Sam Rainsy’s reinstatement in the National Assembly and the cancelation of the arrest warrant.
“His removal is another step backwards for Cambodia’s progress towards a free and democratic society,” the U.S. embassy in Cambodia said in a statement. “We call on the National Assembly to reinstate Mr. Rainsy immediately and to restore his parliamentary immunity. We also call on the government to revoke the arrest warrant issued against him on seven-year-old defamation charges and to allow him and other opposition parliamentarians to return to Cambodia without fear of arrest or persecution.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said Sam Rainsy’s arrest warrant is a lawful act by the courts. “That seems like an order,” he said, “without resorting to any legal elements of Cambodian law or checking on what Sam Rainsy has done, what offenses he committed.”