US calls on Cambodia to ‘undo’ ban on opposition party

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 November, 2017, 5:36pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 November, 2017, 9:20pm

The United States on Thursday demanded Cambodia reverse its ban on the country’s main opposition as it warned the dissolution of the party would strip 2018 elections of legitimacy.

Washington hit out after Cambodia’s Supreme Court – effectively controlled by strongman premier Hun Sen – outlawed the Cambodia National Rescue Party and banned more than 100 of its politicians in a ruling blasted by a rights group as the “death” of the nation’s democracy.

The European Union echoed Washington’s concerns over a move that means Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party can essentially run in next year’s polls uncontested.

Cambodia responded on Friday, calling the US “ringleaders” of an alleged coup plot.

The verdict is the culmination of a methodical strangling of dissent in Cambodia that began after the CNRP nearly unseated Hun Sen – who has ruled for 32 years – in the last national election in 2013.

A government clampdown has ratcheted up in recent months, with CNRP president Kem Sokha thrown into jail and charged with treason in September.

The US blasted Thursday’s ruling as a setback for democracy in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh must “undo its recent actions against the CNRP, release imprisoned CNRP leader Kem Sokha, and allow opposition parties, civil society and the media to maintain their legitimate activities”, the White House said.

It added that it would pull support for Cambodia’s National Election Committee before next year’s vote.

“On current course next year’s election will not be legitimate, free, or fair,” the statement said.

Washington joined the European Union in condemning the decision, which follows a months-long crackdown on dissent in the country with media outlets closed, journalists jailed and activists harassed.

A spokesman for Hun Sen’s CPP on Friday said the decision to dissolve the CNRP was in line with the law and the country would be fine without US support.

“If the EU and US won’t assist us, there are countries like Russia, China, Japan and South Korea who would help us continue the democracy,” Sok Eysan said, calling Washington the “ringleaders” of CNRP’s alleged coup plans.

Washington has previously rejected Cambodia’s allegations of American involvement in plotting to oust the government as baseless.

The EU warned on Thursday that next year’s elections are stripped of credibility with the CNRP now pulled from the race.

“An electoral process from which the main opposition party has been arbitrarily excluded is not legitimate,” it said in a statement. “A situation in which all parties, including the CNRP, their leaders and their supporters are able to carry out freely their legitimate functions, must be swiftly restored.”

The CNRP said on Thursday it “still considers itself to be a legitimate party with a mandate from half of the Cambodian population”, though more than half its 55 lawmakers have fled the country in the middle of the crackdown.

The ruling was widely expected from a court closely aligned with the CPP.

The CNRP was accused of a US-backed plot to overthrow the government – allegations that were rejected by the US.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge defector, said next year’s elections would go ahead as scheduled.

In addition to banning the CNRP, his government has in recent months shut down a series of outspoken organisations and independent news outlets – including The Cambodia Daily .

This week, two former reporters from the US-based Radio Free Asia were arrested and accused of supplying a foreign state with information that threatens national security.