Cambodia opposition party to be dissolved in blow to democracy

Security personnel guard the Supreme Court during its hearing in the crucial case to dissolve the country's main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. Picture: AP Photo/Heng Sinith
Security personnel guard the Supreme Court during its hearing in the crucial case to dissolve the country's main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. Picture: AP Photo/Heng Sinith
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Cambodia’s Supreme Court ordered the main opposition party to be dissolved yesterday, dealing a crushing blow to democratic aspirations in the increasingly oppressive Southeast Asian state. The decision clears the way for the nation’s authoritarian leader to remain in power for years to come.

The verdict, which was widely expected, comes amid a growing push by the administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen to neutralize political opponents and silence critics ahead of elections due in July 2018.

Chief Judge Dith Munty, who is a senior ruling party member, announced the nine-member court’s unanimous ruling.

He said 118 opposition party members would also be banned from politics for the next five years, and the verdict could not be appealed. The government accuses the Cambodia National Rescue Party of plotting a coup and has called for its dissolution for weeks. The opposition staunchly denies the allegations and says they are politically motivated - a position backed by international rights groups and independent analysts who say no credible evidence has emerged to back the claims.

The party had been expected to pose a serious challenge in next year’s polls. During the last vote in 2013, it scored major gains in a tense race that saw Hun Sen narrowly retain office.

Since then, the opposition’s fortunes have ebbed dramatically.

Sam Rainsy, who led the party during that vote, went into exile in 2016 and faces a jail term for a criminal defamation conviction if he returns. The party’s current leader, Kem Sokha, has been imprisoned since September, charged with treason.

Amid deepening fears over the nation’s fate, more than 20 opposition politicians - about half of those with seats in Parliament - have also fled the country.

Mu Sochua, an opposition party vice president who is among those who have left, said the struggle for democracy was not over in Cambodia. Speaking in London just before the verdict, she said there were no plans to launch demonstrations immediately. “But in the heart, in our hearts, in our minds, in our spirits, in our souls, the fight for democracy will continue. It will not die.”

Amnesty International blasted the decision, calling it “a blatant act of political repression.” “This is yet more evidence of how the judiciary in Cambodia is essentially used as an arm of the executive and as a political tool to silence dissent,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.