Three more senior leaders of the outlawed opposition CNRP have asked the government’s permission to participate in politics again, leaving exiled CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua wondering why.
On Friday, Sochua questioned whether the three, including ex-parliamentarian Son Chhay, have accepted the 2017 court order that dissolved the CNRP, and why they — and nine other former CNRP leaders — would even need to request back political rights that are enshrined in the nation’s Constitution.
“What are they guilty of? Can they answer to the [thousands of] grassroots leaders who have hung on to their determination to not defect, [and] accept positions and money offered by Hun Sen?” Sochua said in an email.
She said the Law on Political Parties amendment that allows for “political rehabilitation” at Prime Minister Hun Sen’s discretion for those banned from participating in politics was “clearly [meant] to divide the CNRP.”
“We won’t fall into this trap because political rights are guaranteed by the Constitution. Why should we make the request?” asked Sochua, who fled Cambodia to avoid arrest following the CNRP’s dissolution.
“How will rehabilitation guarantee that Son Chhay and others be allowed to exercise their full political rights?” she added.
The Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition CNRP in November 2017 for reputedly plotting to overthrow the government. The court also banned 118 of its members from politics for a period of five years, or one election cycle. Since the ruling, at least 12 of the 118 senior CNRP lawmakers and party officers have requested “political rehabilitation” from the government, with nine granted reinstatement of their constitutional rights.
The moves by ex-CNRP figures have been criticized by party co-founder Sam Rainsy as effective betrayal.
In separate letters to Interior Minister Sar Kheng dated Thursday, Chhay and former CNRP steering committee members Tav Kimchhorn and Va Samon asked to have their political rights granted back to them by the government.
“I would like to ask Samdech Kralahom deputy prime minister [Sar Kheng] to please procedurally review my request in order to give me political rehabilitation,” reads a letter bearing Chhay’s signature that was published in local media this week.
Chhay could not be reached on Friday, while VOD was unable to contact Kimchhorn and Samon for comment. But Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak confirmed the three men filed the requests to the government.
Sopheak denied any government pressure was behind the latest rehabilitation requests, which he said were forwarded to Minister Sar Kheng and under review.
The spokesperson said the requests were beneficial for the three individuals, but were insignificant for the nation as a whole.
“They can do politics again because all of them are politicians. If politicians did not do politics, it would be like athletes without a place to compete,” Sopheak said.
But, he added, “Whether we have them or not is no matter; it does nothing to affect our country.”
Still, Sopheak said he hoped more came forward and requested rehabilitation, even as some CNRP leaders were waiting to see whether the political winds started blowing in their favor and pressure was put on Cambodia by foreign countries.
Sopheak doubted that outcome, and said that after three years the situation had already improved.
“National activities are still going forward, the political situation is still better, and peace is still peace. Nothing has changed as they wanted,” he said, referring to the CNRP.
Former CNRP parliamentarians Ou Chanrath, Kang Kimhak, Chiv Kata, Tep Sothy, Kong Bora and Real Camerin, as well as party steering committee members Chan Seyla and Sim Sovanny, and former senior adviser Kong Korm, have each had their political rights reinstated by the government upon their requests.
Hun Sen previously set a deadline of Khmer New Year last year to seek his pardon, and his ruling CPP has claimed that other than the nine ex-CNRP officials who were already granted political clemency, 15 others were in the process of applying for rehabilitation as of March last year.
Sochua, the CNRP deputy president, said on Friday that top party leaders have “not been communicating” with those who have effectively left the party.
She went on to note the detention of unionist Rong Chhun, and said young people, average citizens and the elderly were risking their freedom and publicly protesting for Chhun’s release. Several of his supporters have been jailed in relation to recurring protests.
“Do they need Hun Sen for their political rights?” Sochua said.
Kata, one of the former CNRP lawmakers whose political rights were restored by the government in March last year, told VOD that it was the right of every individual to make such requests based on personal decisions.
Asked whether “political rehabilitation” would help improve the CNRP’s situation, Kata said he did not know how it would help, adding that it depended on individuals’ reasons for requesting their right to political participation.
“If [they are] involved in politics, I think it is a good thing because they are democratic and will probably help strengthen democracy and freedom,” said Kata, who co-founded the Cambodia Nation Love Party with a fellow rehabilitated ex-CNRP lawmaker, Kang Kimhak, in January.
The pair were accused of acting in the ruling party’s interests at the time.
Kata said he had participated in the political rehab process because he observed democratic backsliding in Cambodia, saw more of the nation’s political dissidents becoming fearful and wanted to give activists a political outlet.
“I prepared this new house for all of them to participate,” he said, referring to his party.
The Cambodia Nation Love Party was preparing to compete in the 2022 commune elections, and most of its members were formerly aligned with the CNRP, Kata added.
While he said the party was not following the CNRP’s political platform, he appealed to all supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party to join forces to rescue the country and its democracy.
Political commentator Meas Nee said top CNRP leaders should allow party officials to seek their political rights rather than lock them up within the banned party, like they are already restricted by the government. A restoration of their rights by the government would give them the ability to communicate with grassroots supporters legally, according to Nee.
He warned that if more CNRP leaders chose to cooperate with the government, and the CNRP senior leadership accused them of abandoning the party, then the CNRP would lose its stalwarts, which would further the government strategy to divide the opposition.
Similarly, if those seeking a clean political slate from the government planned to exploit the situation and develop their own party, the banned main opposition would take a further hit, Nee said.
“If they came out without a strategy, and came out to take advantage and create a new party, I think that it might be difficult and could make the CNRP forces weak.”
Asked whether she viewed the CNRP leaders who made requests for “political rehabilitation” traitors to the CNRP, Sochua said unity was the “key to fight against dictatorship.”
“Democrats should never leave fellow democrats to fight alone,” she said.