Cambodian PM wants law changed to close the door on opponents

PHNOM PENH – Hun Sen, Cambodian Prime Minister for more than three decades, will make it even more difficult for some of his longtime opponents to seek to replace him ahead of the 2022 and 2023 elections by banning top positions for binationals.

Agitated by a now corrected mistake in a British newspaper, Hun Sen’s government is set to change the country’s constitution to exclude dual citizenship from high-level political posts.

After the Guardian article last week incorrectly claimed he held Cypriot citizenship, Hun Sen is following through on this long-standing threat. It will affect prominent opposition politicians who have dual citizenship, including Sam Rainsy, who led the Cambodia National Rescue Party, a party forced to disband ahead of the 2018 parliamentary elections.

The proposed amendments are the latest rule change pushed by the leader whose prolonged crackdown on political rivals has fragmented opposition parties.

Likely adopted soon, the changes would mean that the posts of prime minister, presidents of the National Assembly and Senate, and president of the Constitutional Council, a supreme judicial body, could only be filled by people with Cambodian nationality alone.

The Guardian’s story sparked hyperbolic outrage from Hun Sen and his cronies – especially after being promoted on social media by Rainsy, who lives in exile in Paris. Hun Sen does not hold an island nation’s passport, but several of his relatives, including relatives, do, as a 2019 Reuters investigation revealed.

In a thinly veiled sweep, Hun Sen on Facebook said the proposed amendment would “close the door” to people with dual citizenship aspiring to rule the country, also saying the change was needed to avoid “foreign interference. “.

In response, Rainsy said he would relinquish his French nationality if necessary and called for term limits on Cambodia’s highest office. Hun Sen has been Prime Minister for more than three decades.

The brawl comes as a new round of voter registration opens this month ahead of next year’s elections to decide the heads of Cambodia’s some 1,600 communes.

The poll will be the first since the 2018 national elections, in which Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party won all parliamentary seats after the state-controlled judiciary forcibly dissolved the CNRP. The next legislative elections are scheduled for 2023.

Formed from the merger of two small parties led by Rainsy and Kem Sokha, the CNRP nearly toppled the CPP in 2013, winning nearly half of the vote that year and triggering the biggest protests in modern Cambodia history.

Following the 2017 communal elections, in which the CNRP again behaved well, authorities arrested Sokha on false charges of treason, banned more than 100 of its members from engaging in politics and prosecuted hundreds of his supporters.

The story of the Guardian which wrongly asserted that Hun Sen had Cypriot nationality. (Screenshot from The Guardian website)

Several former CNRP members began to launch new political parties after asking the authorities for so-called political “rehabilitation”. At least six new parties linked to former CNRP members have emerged.

Among them is the Cambodia National Love Party co-founded last year by Kang Kimhak, a former CNRP parliamentarian, who said the opposition must “move forward”.

“We will collect the spirit of the former CNRP so that we have a chance to get involved in politics to help the country and the people,” he said.

The merits of adding more small parties, which were not competitive in previous elections, are debated. The CPP often uses the existence of such opponents to claim that Cambodia remains democratic.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay does not see a constructive role for the new groups, saying they will only divide the ranks of the opposition.

“I see the recent emergence of several new parties as another shining success of our prime minister’s divide-and-rule salami tactic,” said Mong Hay.

“[Hun Sen has used such parties] to assert his power, to gain recognition and support … and to get the opposition to surrender to him. “

Cambodian researcher Astrid Noren-Nilsson said the new parties were a small step towards some degree of political competition, especially if they cooperated closely or merged.

“If the opposition is ever to push for a more competitive version of politics – no one is talking about a change of government – there has to be an electoral vehicle,” said Noren-Nilsson, senior lecturer at the Center. studies on East and South-East Asia from the Swedish University of Lund.

“Some of them are going to merge, but the question is how well they will read government signals and push in a way suited to them, and how much of a more controversial or turbulent process.”