Seven more former members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party have been permitted to reenter politics, according to a royal decree issued Sunday, in a move that one senior opposition official said was aimed at legitimizing future elections.
The opposition party was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017 and118 party members were barred from participating in politics for five years. The dissolution came two months after the arrest of party president Kem Sokha on treason allegations and by the end of 2020, around 350 members had faced arrests, charges, detentions and summons.
But the government also created a mechanism to permit opposition members to return to politics upon request, which some party leaders maintain have come through coercion. Thus far, 22 former members have had their political rights restored. Some have joined the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and others have helped form or join three new political parties.
The seven members most recently “rehabilitated” are all close associates of Sokha and formerly members of his Human Rights Party, which he founded in 2007 before merging it with the Sam Rainsy Party in 2012 to form the CNRP.
Muth Chantha, Sokha’s former cabinet chief, declined to comment due to a health issue. The other six members, which include former party spokesman and lawmaker Yem Ponhearith, could not be reached for comment.
Meach Sovannara, a former senior opposition official, said the bans were being lifted as part of a broader political strategy by the CPP, seeking to legitimize the 2022 commune and 2023 national elections.
He took aim at those who requested the pardon, saying they should continue to support their party “parents,” Sokha and Rainsy.
“If they remained loyal they should find any means to stay with our parents,” he said.
“For my opinion, maybe they think about their livelihood or they want to create a new political party,” he said.
Sokha stands accused of colluding with the US and other foreign powers to topple the Cambodian government. He spent one year in prison and another year under house arrest. His hearing was suspended in March 2020, due to concerns over the pandemic, and the Phnom Penh Municipal Court still has not set a new date, leaving him in legal limbo.
Pa Chanroeun, president of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, said he thought the bans being lifted was good in that it allowed the individual members to return to politics.
“But I do not see it easing the political situation,” he added, noting that Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy still frequently publicly attack one another, suggesting little chance of a return for the CNRP. “Obviously, freedom of politics and civic spaces are still severely restricted,” Chanroeun said, adding that he doubted a truly outspoken government critic would be allowed to return to politics.
Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling CPP, said he welcomed the lifting of the ban on the CNRP members, and denied that CPP pressured them in any way.
“I think it is their political right,” he said.
Eysan said that the former CNRP members inside Cambodia likely requested a lifting of the ban because they recognized that the opposition party wouldn’t be reinstated and that they had been “cheated” by “outside rebels” who had failed to return the country, an apparent jab at Rainsy and several other CNRP officials who remain in self-exile to avoid what many consider to be politically motivated charges.
Eysan also denied that the bans had been lifted amid international pressure. Last August, the EU withdrew some of Cambodia’s trade preferences under the ‘Everything But Arms’ tariff-free agreement. In a statement, the EU noted that preferential access would be restored only if Cambodia brings back a “credible” democratic opposition, among other demands.
“Cambodia has a good situation,” said Eysan. “If [the international community] is not happy with us, they remain [able] to accuse us of violating human rights or backtracking in democracy,” he said.