Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday promised opposition party defectors would be welcomed with open arms into his Cambodian People’s Party in spite of their leader Kem Sokha being branded a “traitor”, adding that he was “99 percent sure” the party would be dissolved before Sokha’s trial even began.
In a speech to garment workers on Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich, the prime minister promised more than 5,000 Cambodia National Rescue Party commune councillors and chiefs that they could keep their jobs if they joined the CPP.
“This is a win-win policy,” he said, likening the promise to a similar scheme in the 1990s to reintegrate former Khmer Rouge soldiers into government positions.
“I wish to inform all the CNRP’s commune chiefs, deputy commune chiefs or any CNRP members: if you want to save your jobs . . . change your allegiance to the CPP.”
The Supreme Court is currently weighing a complaint from the Ministry of Interior seeking the dissolution of the CNRP – the Kingdom’s largest opposition party and winner of 44 percent of the vote in the 2013 election – under controversial amendments to the Law on Political Parties rammed through by the ruling party earlier this year.
“If your party dissolves and you want to go with them, go. But if you want to continue to work as commune chiefs, you should resign from your party and defect to the CPP,” Hun Sen said.
He added that CPP deputy commune chiefs should not “be upset with commune chiefs who are from CNRP, because they change their lives to live with us”.
The CNRP won almost a third of commune chief positions in the June commune elections – 489 out of 1,646, an unprecedented showing for an opposition party.
Under new amendments to election laws, which passed the CPP-dominated Senate on Friday in a session boycotted by the opposition, the CPP is set to take all of those CNRP positions. Other amendments passed on Friday allow the CNRP’s 55 National Assembly to be redistributed to minor parties, none of which won a single seat in 2013.
In an exclusive interview with government mouthpiece Fresh News, Hun Sen also extended the olive branch to CNRP lawmakers.
Long Bunny, a CNRP lawmaker in Prey Veng, was the first to switch sides.
“I would like to tell Samdech [Hun Sen] that after learning that Kem Sokha is a traitor, I would request Samdech to allow me to join CPP with great mercy,” he wrote in a letter published by Fresh News.
Kem Sokha has been arrested and accused of “treason” over a 2013 speech in which he spoke about popular uprisings to overthrow dictators and receiving US advice during his career.
But popular O’Char Commune Chief Sin Rozeth in Battambang, who swept to victory in the June elections, said she would rather lose her job than join the CPP.
“I absolutely won’t surrender or betray the people’s will, [as they] voted for CNRP,” she said, vowing to serve her community in another way if ousted.
Takeo province’s Nop Sokheng, CNRP commune chief for Bati district’s Doung commune, said he will wait until the CNRP is dissolved before making a decision on whether to join the CPP.
“We should not evaluate it before it happened. [I am] just thinking how I can serve the people’s interests well,” he said.
CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua, who fled Cambodia after being warned of her imminent arrest, said the premier was repeating an old pattern.
“Those who defect do so because of promises by CPP, which is an old trick. Been there. Seen it. At the end those who join CPP get titles but no power,” she said in a message.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan refused to comment when asked why his party would want to welcome officials from a party his government accused of “treason”.
Meanwhile, one of Sokha’s lawyers, Pheng Heng, confirmed that Sokha’s appeal of his bail rejection would be heard at the Supreme Court on October 31.
“It is just an appeal against the decision of the court, to detain [him] . . . because we do not recognise he committed the crime,” Heng said, stressing that Sokha had not yet been found guilty.
National Assembly spokesman Leng Peng Long said yesterday that the latest round of legal amendments had been sent to the Constitutional Council to be reviewed following their passage by the Senate on Friday – the last step before they are signed into law by the King and officially take effect.
Senate spokesman Mam Bunneang said the laws were passed to preserve stability.
“We are not worried because the laws have been created with careful consideration . . . They are all groups of legal experts who have studied carefully to abide by Cambodia’s Constitution,” he said, despite observers pointing out that some laws would diminish the constitutional aim of liberal multiparty democracy.
He dismissed the widespread concerns of the international community, saying “we don’t care”.
“If we make [our laws] for foreigners, we are traitors, we betray the people’s will, but we do this to serve the people and the nation, and to keep peace as well as social development,” he said.
Senator Chum Morn maintained that the laws were not aimed at any political party and that a democracy that is too broad would “cause anarchy”.
Additional reporting by Erin Handley