The former president of Cambodia’s now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has suggested that his party will replicate the success of Malaysia’s opposition, which assumed power this week after voters rejected a ruling party that had governed the country since its independence.
Former CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid convictions seen as politically motivated, told a group of supporters in Virginia late on Thursday that he had been inspired by the opposition’s victory in Malaysia and expects similar success for his party in removing the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
“The ruling party in Malaysia, which administered the country for more than 60 years, has lost the election to the opposition,” he said, adding that the political situation in Malaysia is “very much similar to that of Cambodia.”
“The strong people power and solidarity around the opposition have brought [Malaysia’s] opposition to this victory. That gives us hope. We have to continue our fight. We are certain that we will succeed because we are committed to being very honest to our people and nation.”
In a historic election on Wednesday, voters in Malaysia threw their support behind an opposition bloc led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 92, giving it a majority in parliament and throwing out the ruling party led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is accused of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds.
The stunning upset marked the first victory by the opposition since Malaysia gained its independence from Britain in 1957.
On Thursday, Sam Rainsy said that the CNRP will replicate the success of Malaysia’s opposition, despite a political crackdown which saw CNRP President Kem Sokha arrested on charges of treason in September and the opposition party banned by the Supreme Court in November for its alleged role in a plot to topple the government, because it enjoys popular support in Cambodia.
“The number of our supporters has increased very significantly and Cambodians support us because we remain loyal to them,” he said, adding that the CNRP’s leadership is “united and strong.”
He urged Cambodians to boycott elections planned for July 29 in order to “deprive the ruling party of its legitimacy” if the CNRP is denied the right to take part in the ballot, and said that by doing so they would send “a clear signal to Hun Sen that we cannot tolerate the abuse of human rights and democracy.”
The CNRP received more than 3 million votes—accounting for nearly half of the country’s registered voters—in Cambodia’s 2013 general election, and enjoyed similar success in last year’s commune ballot, making it the only legitimate challenger to the CPP ahead of July.
On Friday, CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan told RFA’s Khmer Service that the political situation in Malaysia is nothing like that of Cambodia.
“The opposition party in Cambodia is dead—it has no ability to compete in the election, like the opposition in Malaysia did,” Sok Eysan said.
“Sam Rainsy was just excited about an opposition party winning the elections. Whenever an opposition party in a foreign country wins, he always says his party will win as well,” he said.
“But Sam Rainsy should know that winning an election is not based on talking, it’s based on doing. Sam Rainsy does nothing but incite more trouble.”
Hun Sen’s recent crackdown on the opposition, as well as on NGOs and the independent media, is widely seen as part of a bid to ensure that the CPP remains in power for another term following July’s election and extends his 33-year rule of the country.
Both the U.S. and EU have withdrawn donor support for Cambodia’s elections, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy in the country, including the banning of the CNRP and the arrest of Kem Sokha.
Late on Thursday, Florida Congressman Ted Yoho, the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, introduced the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2018, which aims to punish Cambodia over the government’s recent restrictions on the country’s democratic process.
In a statement, Yoho said the legislation would “push back against the Hun Sen regime’s undermining of democracy and related human rights abuses by applying financial sanctions to the figures who carry out this despicable agenda and codifying the [U.S. President Donald Trump] Administration’s existing visa restrictions for these individuals.”
“This bill will help the people of Cambodia in their pursuit of democracy by imposing costs on Hun Sen’s consolidation of power,” the lawmaker said.
Earlier this week, Yoho acknowledged to RFA that the proposed legislation may come too late to force Hun Sen to reinstate the CNRP before the July ballot, and said the fairness of the election will ultimately “rely on the Cambodian people demanding that they have opposition parties to Hun Sen.”
Absent the CNRP, a boycott of the July election is “a great strategy,” he said at the time.
On Friday, Sok Eysan suggested that Yoho’s Cambodia Democracy Act was a “violation of Cambodia’s sovereignty.”
“A law in a country is made for the people of that country to implement,” he said, referring to Cambodia’s Supreme Court decision to ban the CNRP.
“Now, it is being called into question when an ‘act’ is aimed at pressuring Cambodia into doing certain things. This kind of move is against democratic principles.”
Also on Friday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed “disappointment” over a decision a day earlier by Cambodia’s Appeal Court to uphold the “insurrection” convictions of 11 CNRP members and supporters, saying the ruling highlighted concerns about fair trial rights and the perception of government interference at the time of the trial.
The 11 were originally sentenced in July 2015 to between seven and 20 years in prison for allegedly inciting violence during a demonstration at Freedom Park in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh a year earlier.
“The ‘CNRP 11’—who have already spent nearly three years in detention—appear to have been convicted for their political opinion, and for exercising their rights to freedom of expression,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said in a statement.
The U.N. noted that during their initial trial, the accused were unable to cross-examine complainants and were not given adequate time and opportunity to present their defense, while at the appeal hearing the original complainants—paramilitary police officers—admitted that they had merely signed on to complaints drafted by others.
No evidence was produced during the trial or appeal that linked any of the 11 accused with the violence at the 2014 demonstration, or the charges of insurrection they were convicted of, the statement said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch had called on Cambodia Tuesday to “quash the politically motivated ‘insurrection’ convictions” against the 11 CNRP members ahead of the court decision on their appeal.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams called their 2015 conviction “one of the first of many bogus cases brought against the opposition after the party nearly won the disputed 2013 elections” and suggested that incarcerating them was part of a bid by Hun Sen and the CPP to “stave off defeat at the ballot-box.”