The action could signal the end of a political truce struck last year between the government of authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen and the opposition, which had agreed to return to the assembly after staging a boycott over alleged fraud during 2013 elections.
The removal of Kem Sokha, one of the harshest critics of Hun Sen, was passed by a 68-0 vote in just 30 minutes. It had not been on the assembly’s agenda and all 55 opposition members walked out in protest.
The vote was preceded by violence on Monday when two opposition lawmakers were badly beaten by a mob calling for Kem Sokha’s resignation.
The two were undergoing treatment in Bangkok, and Kem Sokha went to visit them yesterday when he was removed.
Hun Sen has been in power almost three decades. While Cambodia is formally democratic, the government is notorious for intimidating opponents. Hun Sen has warned of civil war if the opposition wins the next election, suggesting his followers would not accept such a result. Relations between the government and the opposition deteriorated earlier this year after the opposition tried to exploit a volatile issue by accusing neighbouring Vietnam, with which Hun Sen’s government maintains good relations, of land encroachment.
The anti-Vietnamese position proved politically popular, and the government reacted by stepping up intimidation of the opposition party in the courts, which are seen as being under its influence.
A statement issued yesterday by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party said the dismissal of Kem Sokha was a violation of the constitution because there is no provision for the removal of the president or vice president of the assembly, though it specifies they can lose their posts through death or resignation. Government politicians insisted the vote was legal.