In his latest abrupt policy backtracking, Prime Minister Hun Sen used a speech on Thursday to rescind a recently announced plan to ban dual nationals from leading political parties—an effort that had ostensibly been aimed at the self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
On December 28, Mr. Hun Sen said that the Law on Political Parties “must state that political party leaders must have only Cambodian nationality,” noting that Mr. Rainsy had once again fled to his home in Paris after being ordered arrested in Cambodia.
Yet at a ceremony at CPP headquarters in Phnom Penh on Thursday to mark 37 years since the January 1979 overthrow of Pol Pot by the Vietnamese army and a group of Khmer Rouge defectors, Mr. Hun Sen said that other CPP leaders convinced him to change his mind.
“A few days ago, I spoke about amending the Law on Political Parties, and I said we will consider whether party leaders should only have one nationality. But after consulting with the important leaders of the [ruling] party, we want a majority participating,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“The CPP has decided on a stance to offer the opportunity for leaders of political parties who have one nationality or 10 nationalities to please come to the vote along with the CPP,” the prime minister said.
“We used to compete in the heavyweights. We are used to one nationality, but we also offer the opportunity for our citizens who have many nationalities to become leaders of political parties in Cambodia.”
Mr. Hun Sen added that he did not care whether Mr. Rainsy, who now has two separate warrants out for his arrest, returns to Cambodia, saying that the democratic process would continue either way.
“There are many parties in Cambodia. If there’s not two or three people, the election still proceeds.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan explained that Mr. Hun Sen’s change of mind—which followed a Wednesday night executive order rescinding a key element of the unpopular new traffic law—showed the party had no fear of its opposition counterparts.
The spokesman noted that the CPP defeated a party led by Mr. Rainsy in the 1998, 2003, 2008 and 2013 national elections.
“The CPP is not scared to compete with His Excellency Sam Rainsy. The CPP has knocked his excel- lency out four times in the ring,” Mr. Eysan said.
At the morning’s ceremony, Mr. Hun Sen—celebrating January 7 for the first time as president of the CPP after last year’s death of founding president Chea Sim—said Cam- bodians should not forget the gift they received with the overthrow of Pol Pot’s regime.
“We celebrate this historical victory in a spirit of respect and deep gratitude for the fighters who stood up to fight and dared to sacrifice fresh flesh and blood, and their lives, to rescue the nation,” he said.
Mr. Hun Sen also offered “gratitude to the volunteer Vietnamese armies that provided support for this supreme cause,” for their sacrifices in freeing Cambodians from the deadly leadership of Pol Pot.
After the ceremony, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh congratulated Cambodia on the 37 years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Until 1990, the regime continued to hold Cambodia’s U.N. seat—in lieu of Mr. Hun Sen’s government—thanks to U.S.-Chinese support.
“Cambodia’s Victory Day on January 7 marks the liberation of Phnom Penh from the Khmer Rouge, one of the most unambiguously evil regimes in history,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement on its website.
“Victory over the Khmer Rouge is a victory shared by all Cambodians. Today, we wish to express our grief for the loss of nearly two million lives and the disruption of so many others,” the message added.
The political opposition, however, whose roots lay in the 1980s armed resistance to Mr. Hun Sen’s Vietnamese-backed communist government, reject the celebration of Jan- uary 7 as a national day, given that it sparked a decade of war and Vietnamese military occupation.
In a message posted on his Facebook, Mr. Rainsy resuscitated an old trope espoused by the remaining Khmer Rouge in the years after their downfall, claiming that much of the death under their regime was driven by Vietnamese agents.
“7 January 1979 is a military and political show organised by the Vietnamese. They say they came to liberate us from the Khmer Rouge. But if there were no communist Vietnamese in the first place there would be no Khmer Rouge either,” Mr. Rainsy wrote.
Mr. Eysan, the CPP spokesman, said that such comments did not surprise him, but questioned whether Mr. Rainsy would have preferred for the Vietnamese not to intervene and oust Pol Pot in 1979.
“He’s against January 7 and it means that Sam Rainsy looks down on the lives of the people who survived the Pol Pot regime, and that he did not want for the lives of those people to be rescued.”
(Additional reporting by Alex Willemyns)