The US State Department on Friday welcomed news that opposition leader Sam Rainsy has received a royal pardon, allowing for his return to Cambodia ahead of the July 28 elections.
But in a Friday media briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki also urged Cambodia to continue reforms to ensure a credible election, including the implementation of 18 separate recommendations made by the UN’s special rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi.
“We call on the Cambodian government to facilitate a safe environment for his return and allow for [Sam Rainsy’s] meaningful and unfettered participation in the elections,” she said.
Sam Rainsy said this week that his royal pardon was not the end to changes that must be made ahead of the elections. The opposition and other supporters are calling for the reform of the National Election Committee, which they say is biased toward the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Sam Rainsy will no longer face imprisonment for charges related to his uprooting of border markers near Vietnam in 2009 and the subsequent posting of a map online that he said indicated Vietnamese border encroachment. But officials at the National Election Committee say he remains ineligible to vote or run in the upcoming election.
Koul Panha, head of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, and independent monitoring group, said Sam Rainsy’s return without his participation in the election was a key point that needs to be addressed.
“This just means that he can only support his party during the campaign,” Koul Panha said. “But he is not an actor in the contest for the candidacy of prime minister or for a member of parliament.”
The international community will be watching to see whether another deal is struck allowing for Sam Rainsy’s participation as a candidate, Koul Panha said.
Hang Puthea, head of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections, another watchdog group, said Sam Rainsy’s pardon was a positive sign.
“The political negotiation broke through the tension between the opposition and the ruling party,” he said. But he also said Sam Rainsy must now be allowed to vote and to run in the election.
Sok Touch, dean of Khemarak University, told VOA Khmer that Sam Rainsy’s pardon was a “peaceful solution” that should now be followed by a National Election Committee decision enabling him to run.
“If the case were to be solved out, then I believe this would be a victory for the politicians,” he said. “And after the election, the world will recognize what democracy in Cambodia is, that democracy is something Cambodia can tackle on its own.”