The ruling CPP has denied that an article in the new election law that lays down strict penalties for politicians that incite racial discrimination during election campaigning is targeted at the opposition party.
Senior lawmaker Chheang Vun insisted yesterday the provision was not meant to restrict any specific party and would be equally applied.
However, a CPP source familiar with election reform negotiations has disclosed that the CNRP raised concerns during the drafting process that it could constrain its freedom of expression, a fact confirmed by a CNRP negotiator present.
The CNRP has been criticised in the past – by rights groups, the international community and the government – for its frequent deployment of anti-Vietnamese rhetoric.
Days before the July 2013 election, CNRP leader Sam Rainsy lambasted the authorities, who he said “do not protect their fellow Khmers at all, but protect the invading yuons”, using a widely used Khmer term for ethnic Vietnamese that some consider derogatory.
Deputy leader Kem Sokha, meanwhile, last June accused the “yuon” of orchestrating the 2010 Koh Pich bridge stampede that killed hundreds of Cambodians.
Rainsy has dismissed claims that his party uses inflammatory rhetoric as a “foreign-entertained allegation”.
Article 152 of the soon-to-be-passed election law would levy fines of up to $2,500 and see a warning given to politicians who “insult” or incite discrimination against any ethnic, racial or religious group during the election campaign and voting period.
In the case the politician continues to employ such rhetoric, his or her name will be deleted from the candidate list, with Article 153 stipulating harsher fines and the possible disqualification of the political party.
Independent analyst and rights advocate Ou Virak, who has been one of the few local activists to criticise the opposition’s anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, said the content of some of the CNRP’s past stump speeches would “definitely pass the threshold of hate speech” and be illegal under the amended law.
But he added that there could be “dangers” in punishing entire parties for the speech of certain politicians, saying that personal responsibility should be taken by individuals.
The CPP source, who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve the working partnership between the two parties, claimed the opposition had initially protested the provision.
While he denied that it was written to target the CNRP, he admitted that “to some extent they need to restrict their extreme rhetoric and propaganda”.
“But it doesn’t mean that, oh, the CPP supports letting illegal Vietnamese immigrants come to Cambodia freely,” he said.
CNRP working group member Eng Chhay Eang said that his party supported the article’s inclusion, but had expressed concerns during talks about how it may be interpreted and applied.
“For example, we use the word yuon, which isn’t racist or discriminatory. It’s a word written in Chuor Nath’s [first Khmer] dictionary,” he said.