Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Tuesday denied reports that the government was easing pressure on members of Cambodia’s former opposition party as a result of threats to suspend the country’s preferential trading agreement with the European Union.
The government said it would reverse a five-year ban on 118 former Cambodia National Rescue Party politicians that prevented them from engaging in political activity, allow media outlets to reopen and civil society groups to act with fewer restrictions.
In October, the E.U. told Cambodia it had 12 months to reverse its crackdown on critics, civil society and the media or risk being suspended from the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, which allows Cambodian products duty-free access to E.U. markets.
Kheng said the move was intended to “strengthen democracy” and was “not due to any other reasons.”
“People can say it’s because of the EBA, but we have never abandoned democracy...as we can see, Cambodia has more elections than any country at the same [stage of development].”
He added that the political parties law would be amended to allow the former CNRP members to return to political life.
Leng Penglong, National Assembly secretary-general, said in a statement on Monday that the politicians “could regain their full political rights after the banning date issued by the court.”
He could not be reached for comment.
George Edgar, EU Ambassador to Cambodia, told VOA Khmer on Tuesday that the government statement was a positive step for Cambodian democracy, though observers would need to wait and see how it would play out in practice.
“The statement and the moves towards the creation of a mechanism to unban politicians is a very positive thing. I will be watching closely to see what happens in practice. I think, certainly our response to the statement is a positive one,” he said.
In November 2017, the Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the CNRP on allegations party members had colluded with the United States to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The CNRP’s leader, Kem Sokha, was jailed over the allegations and remains under house arrest after spending a year in prison awaiting trial.
Chan Chen, a lawyer for Sokha, said his client welcomed the decision to allow the CNRP politicians to return to political life. “Any solution for the national interest, the promotes democracy and human rights in Cambodia, my client supports,” he said.