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Opposition Leader To Remain in Exile, as Doubts Rise Over Next Elections

Cambodia's opposition leader Sam Rainsy, center, of the Cambodia National Rescue Party waves along with his party Vice President Kem Sokha, third from left, during a march in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, file photo.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy says he will not immediately return to Cambodia, where he faces the prospect of a two-year jail term on an old criminal defamation case.

The decision to remain abroad was made after a meeting between Sam Rainsy and other senior officials from the Cambodia National Rescue Party in Manila on Friday.

Sam Rainsy has been removed from parliament by a committee dominated by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and his party’s vice president, Kem Sokha, lost a senior seat at the National Assembly. Two more lawmakers are still recovering from severe beatings by anti-opposition t hugs, following demonstrations promoted by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

All of those issues need to be resolved with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party before Sam Rainsy returns, Yem Ponhearith, a party spokesman, said Friday. “Those have not been resolved up to today.” The Rescue Party, as the National Assembly’s minority party, has not been allowed to “properly function at all,” he said.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said it is Sam Rainsy’s choice whether to return. Sam Rainsy is facing an arrest warrant for a suit brought against him by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, who accused him of defamation for a 2008 speech, in which Sam Rainsy said Hor Namhong collaborated with the Khmer Rouge.

Meanwhile, in Washington, a senior State Department official told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that the recent political tension in Cambodia casts doubt on whether upcoming elections will be free and fair.

“Looking ahead, we are very concerned that the 2017 local and the 2018 national elections will not be free or fair and could include violence,” Scott Busby, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, told senators. “We have strongly voiced our concerns about intimidation of the opposition, noting that the Cambodian people continue to express a preference for greater freedom and accountability from their government.”

CPP spokesman Phay Siphan on Friday called that testimony “groundless.” Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha are “destroying…peace and political order,” he added.

Sok Eysan said the current situation will not necessarily be the same in three years, when national elections are scheduled. “This is just a prediction,” he said of Busby’s Senate testimony, “a prediction that may not be 100 percent true.” The Rescue Party “started the fire,” he said, by inciting incidents over contentious border areas with Vietnam and calling Hun Sen a “fascist” and a “dictator.”