Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday maintained that his country is governed by a multi-party democracy and said elections scheduled for next year would go on as planned, despite the recent dissolution of the only opposition party that posed a serious challenge to his rule.
Speaking to more than 10,000 factory workers in the capital Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said that Senate elections scheduled for Feb. 25 and a planned July 29 general ballot would proceed, despite the absence of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved in a Supreme Court ruling last month for its part in an alleged plot to topple the government.
"It's like in a soccer game--an ill-disciplined player would receive a red card or ban from some games--or in other sports--when an athlete is found to be doping, he could even be banned for life," the prime minister said.
"When some players are banned, do you think it is necessary to cancel the whole game or event? Our principle of pluralism is applied exactly as in sports--without some players or groups, there are still many other players and groups for the game," he said.
"In the coming elections, even without the CNRP, the country still has many other opposition political parties."
In addition to Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and the now-defunct CNRP, around 15 minor political parties are actively registered to participate in the country's elections, but none have attracted a comparable number of supporters.
Slightly more than 7 million Cambodians, or more than 90 percent of registered voters, turned out for commune council polls in June, which saw the CPP win 21 provinces and the CNRP win the capital, as well as Siem Reap, Kompong Cham, and Kompong Thom provinces.
The CPP secured 1,156 of 1,646 commune/sangkat chief posts, the CNRP won 489 and one commune leader post went to the Khmer National United Party. The CPP received nearly 51 percent of all votes and the CNRP received nearly 44 percent, while the rest went to 10 other parties.
The CPP currently holds 46 of 57 Senate seats, with the remaining 11 held by members of the Sam Rainsy Party, which merged with the Human Rights Party in 2012 to form the CNRP. In the National Assembly, 68 of 123 seats are held by the CPP, while the remaining 55 were held by the CNRP.
At the end of last month, the National Assembly reallocated 41 of the CNRP's seats to the royalist FUNCINPEC party, two to the Cambodian Nationality Party, and one to the Khmer Economic Development Party--all government-aligned political parties.
The League for Democracy Party and Khmer Anti-Poverty Party refused to accept six and five of the CNRP's former seats, respectively. Those 11 seats now belong to the CPP.
The significant gains made by the CNRP in recent elections pointed to the likelihood of a strong showing in next year's ballots, but observers have said that with the party's dissolution, Hun Sen effectively no longer faces any competition in 2018, and have called into question the legitimacy of upcoming votes.
Also on Wednesday, Hun Sen accused former CNRP President Sam Rainsy--who has been living in self-imposed exile since 2015 to avoid convictions on charges widely seen as politically motivated--of "treason" for calling on Cambodia's military to disobey the prime minister's orders, and said he will face additional legal action for his comments.
Last month, Hun Sen lashed out at CNRP supporters who held peaceful protests against election results in late 2013 and early 2014, accusing them of involvement in a "plot to overthrow the government" and saying he had only recently seen a video of the demonstrations that would have driven him to order the military to "execute" them, had he seen the clip at the time they were staged.
Earlier, Sam Rainsy--who resigned in February this year in a bid to preserve the CNRP in the face of a law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party--posted a video to his Facebook account telling CNRP supporters in Paris that Hun Sen no longer enjoys the loyalty of Cambodia's armed forces.
"I believe that many soldiers do not like Hun Sen, they just don't dare say so, so we need to let the soldiers know that Hun Sen is not eternal and that his days are numbered," the video showed Sam Rainsy saying.
"Our message to the soldiers and police: Please don't obey orders from any dictators if they tell you to shoot and kill innocent people."
In response to the video, Hun Sen called Sam Rainsy a "traitor" who was "calling for a revolt," and suggested the former opposition chief was out of touch with the sentiment of the military and the Cambodian people.
He added that Sam Rainsy's statement "makes clear" that the government was "preventing a war" by arresting CNRP President Kem Sokha in September for allegedly collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the CPP, and dissolving the opposition party for its involvement in the "conspiracy."
The U.S. embassy has rejected claims that Washington meddled in Cambodian politics.
At a press conference, Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) commander-in-chief General Pol Saroeun said Wednesday that the military had consulted with a lawyer and decided to proceed with a lawsuit against Sam Rainsy based on his remarks.
"We listened to the statement of fugitive Sam Rainsy, who is a traitor, calling for the armed forces to rise up against the government and we are disturbed by such remarks," he said.
"In the strongest terms, we wish to retaliate and proceed with the lawsuit on behalf of the RCAF. This matter is huge, and we aren't asking for reparations."
Pol Saroeun went on to say that any soldier who breaks military rules "shall be punished based on the statute of the RCAF," without elaborating.
Hun Sen's government has faced widespread condemnation in recent months over its actions against the CNRP, as well as for orchestrating the closure of independent media outlets and cracking down on nongovernmental organizations, ahead of next year's ballot.
On Wednesday, the U.S. announced visa restrictions on "individuals responsible for undermining Cambodian democracy" as part of a series of "concrete steps" in response the ongoing crackdown.
"We call on the Cambodian government to reverse course by reinstating the political opposition, releasing Kem Sokha, and allowing civil society and media to resume their constitutionally protected activities," State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement.
"Such actions could lead to a lifting of these travel restrictions and increase the potential for Cambodia's 2018 electoral process to regain legitimacy."
Last month, the U.S. withdrew an offer to help fund next year's election and the European Union threatened to end preferential trade tariffs with Cambodia.
Additionally, rights groups and nongovernmental organizations have heaped scorn on Cambodia's government over its recent actions and called on international trade partners and donors to pressure Hun Sen to walk back restrictions.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
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