Human rights observers have slammed Friday’s signing of controversial and highly politicised changes to the Political Parties Law, claiming they are unconstitutional and designed to hamper the opposition ahead of the July 2018 national election.
The changes, which were introduced to target former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy and ban any party from using his voice, image, writings or otherwise “conspiring” with him, were signed by Senate President Say Chhum on Friday. Parties found to be in violation of the law can be dissolved.
Chhum signed the changes as the acting head of state in place of King Norodom Sihamoni, who is in China for medical treatment until the end of August.
King Sihamoni’s absence fuelled speculation he left to avoid signing the contentious changes. On Saturday – one day after the party law changes were signed – he signed a royal decree to grant Deputy Prime Minister Tea Banh the honorific title “Samdech”.
CNRP official Prince Sisowath Thomico said the King signed and sent a scanned copy of the decree and an original would arrive in the mail. When asked why the King did not do the same for the political amendments, Prince Thomico responded: “That is the question!”
Meanwhile, opposition lawmaker Kim Sour Phirith said the CNRP was busily scrubbing Rainsy’s image from all billboards across the country in order to comply with the law.
“On the issue of relating with him [Rainsy], we are asking legal experts to study comprehensively about what is stated in the new amendment,” he said.
Sok Eysan, a spokesman for the Cambodian People’s Party, defended the amendments – the second set of changes to the Political Parties Law in six months. “The aim . . . of this law, [which is] enforced for all political parties in Cambodia … [is] to straighten the line for every political party to respect and steadily enforce democracy and strengthen the rule of law according to the spirit of the October 1991 Paris Accord and the constitution,” Eysan wrote in a message.
However, Human Rights Watch Asia Advocacy Director John Sifton said the amendments had “no legitimate purpose” and were introduced only to try to weaken the CNRP.
“Everyone in Cambodia knows that the real purpose of this amendment is to weaken and possibly even destroy the opposition in the lead up to next year’s elections,” he said in an email.
“We should all ignore talk of law and process and address what’s really going on here: the CPP is abusing the government’s legal process and legislative process to weaken and ultimately destroy a political party opposed to it. And that is profoundly undemocratic.”
“Allies and donors to Cambodia should demand that the government repeal it.”
In a legal analysis issued earlier this month, 19 organisations also described the changes as unconstitutional. The amendments, the groups said, “place further unjustifiable restrictions on the freedoms of association and expression”, “entail a disproportionate logistical and financial burden for any political party that is not in compliance” and “severely hinder the civil and political rights of individuals”.
Meanwhile, according to a report by local media outlet Fresh News yesterday, the Sam Rainsy Party, which is due to disband after the next Senate election in January with its senators expected to run for the CNRP, agreed to change its name to “Candlelight Party”. Under the new Political Parties Law, no party can be named after an individual. SRP senators Teav Vannol and Mardi Seng could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Additionally, royalist party Funcinpec, which boasts an image of Prince Norodom Ranariddh in its insignia, is “preparing for some changes” as the law also prohibits the use of any person’s face in their logo. “We have to be informed . . . [by] some notice from the authorities, otherwise perhaps we will keep quiet,” spokesman Nhep Bun Chin said, adding the party would make a public decision after Ranariddh returned from abroad.