A throwaway line in a U.K. newspaper has sent Cambodia’s political machinery spinning over the past week.
Cambodia’s one-party government is pushing ahead with a constitutional amendments to ban individuals with dual citizenship from holding top positions in government, purportedly to avoid foreign interference and as a sign of devotion to the nation. At least four opposition officials have been charged with plotting over the saga.
The Constitutional Council met on Monday to inspect the amendment, and is set to then inform the king.
“In addition to Russian oligarchs and Saudi potentates, the Cambodian leader, Hun Sen, was discovered to have been among the thousands of non-Europeans who received a Cypriot passport,” U.K. newspaper The Guardian said as background information in an article on the Cypriot president on October 3.
It was a slip-up based on prior reports that emphasized Hun Sen’s connections to niece Hun Kimleng, National Police commissioner Neth Savoeun, Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth, tycoon Choeung Sopheap and senator Lao Meng Khin, who have applied for or acquired Cypriot citizenship, according to Reuters.
By October 6, the Guardian article was corrected to say “Hun Sen’s inner circle.”
But the wheels were already spinning. Cambodia’s outlawed opposition, many of whose officials now stir up social media critiques from overseas, seized the Guardian’s reporting to attack Hun Sen. CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy, a dual French citizen, posted on Facebook on October 5 that Hun Sen had bought a Cypriot passport, citing the U.K. newspaper.
Hun Sen, never one to shy away from a good opposition tussle, also leapt in. He posted on Facebook that Justice Minister Keut Rith would begin preparing a draft amendment that would disqualify Rainsy from ever becoming prime minister.
“If [you] play, don’t get angry. If [you] get angry, don’t play. Because the door has been shut forever for those holding double citizenship attempting to hold a top position, especially the position of prime minister,” Hun Sen wrote.
“To show devotion to the nation and to avoid the foreign interference, the national leaders holding the positions of the presidents of the Senate, National Assembly, prime minister and the president of the Constitutional Council have to have only Khmer citizenship.”
Various institutions and officials immediately expressed support for the prime minister: the Justice Ministry, provincial governors, military and police leaders, the Bar Association, court prosecutors, lawmakers, district governors, universities, NGOs, student associations and others.
And on October 7, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged CNRP officials Rainsy, Eng Chhai Eang, Mu Sochua, Ho Vann and associates with plotting and incitement.
A court statement said the charges were based on Rainsy’s Facebook post, which amounted to a “plan to topple the government” by using exaggerated information to incite the public and the armed forces.
During a Council of Ministers meeting on October 8, Hun Sen reiterated his intentions, saying the ruling party — which holds every seat in the National Assembly after the CNRP was dissolved — has the two-thirds majority needed to pass the amendment, and it would be impossible for the opposition leader to rise to prime minister even in the next life.
“So I will wait and see. Anyone who is against this has the intention to be prime minister, or supports someone preparing to be prime minister in order to gain the favor of a position as minister or secretary of state. We will wait and see,” the prime minister added.
The Council of Ministers approved the draft, and a Constitutional Council statement the following day noted there would be several amendments to existing articles in the Constitution.
Rainsy has since written on Facebook that the amendment was useless, and he would abandon his French citizenship if necessary, instead proposing that all government officials should be required to retire at 70 years of age, and the prime ministership should be limited to two terms, or 10 years. Hun Sen has been in power since the 1980s.
Political scientist Seng Sary said the various statements of support and other institutional processes were distractions from the fact that a Constitutional amendment had arisen out of a political squabble between Rainsy and Hun Sen.
“This is a method to show in the future that this law did not come from the verbal argument on the social media between Samdech Hun Sen and Mr. Sam Rainsy, but that this law is instead a common need of the people,” Sary said. “That is why the government urged civil servants, armed forces to issue petitions in support.”
Additional reporting by Tran Techseng and Meng Kroypunlok