The National Assembly’s decision last week to remove the parliamentary immunity of three Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers appears to be a deliberate move to silence opposition voices, observers said, though many questioned the motives behind the move.
At a time when the Sam Rainsy Party has been less vocal than usual in its criticism toward the government, and with the next national elections still more than three years away, “it doesn’t make sense” for the authorities to put such pressure on the opposition, one Asian diplomat said on condition of anonymity Sunday.
“It doesn’t seem to be in the government’s interest to do it,” the diplomat said, pointing to outcry from the US government and local and international rights groups.
The Assembly’s decision to lift the immunity of the three lawmakers—Sam Rainsy, Cheam Channy and Chea Poch—paves the way for the courts to proceed with several lawsuits against them.
Sam Rainsy and Chea Poch face defamation suits from Funcinpec for alleging that Funcinpec and Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh received bribes to join the CPP in the current coalition government. And Cheam Channy, who was arrested shortly after being stripped of immunity, stands accused of organizing an illegal armed force.
Those lawsuits have been pending for several months.
Lao Mong Hay of the Center for Social Development suggested on Sunday that the ruling parties are now seeking to undermine the Sam Rainsy Party due to increasing public discontent with the government.
“It seems that our rulers have lost self confidence because of continued criticism on the part of ordinary citizens,” who are increasingly supportive of the Sam Rainsy Party, Lao Mong Hay said.
To counter that, the ruling parties appear to be moving to bankrupt the Sam Rainsy Party through the courts, he said.
“This move is to destroy the opposition party altogether,” he said.
The Asian diplomat suggested Sunday that Thursday’s Assembly session may have also been an opportunity for Funcinpec to show its solidarity.
Though Funcinpec broke its brief alliance with the Sam Rainsy Party to enter a coalition government with the CPP last July, “a lot of Funcinpec people do not really see Sam Rainsy as an opponent but as a partner in the future,” the diplomat said.
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, agreed.
“They need to confirm that [the relationship between] Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen will be smooth,” Koul Panha said Thursday.
He added that the removal of the opposition lawmakers’ immunity would serve as a warning to other parliamentarians not to criticize the government.
In terms of what happens next, Lao Mong Hay said it will largely depend on the reaction of the US government.
“If the Americans were to decide to impose sanctions, it could” cause the ruling parties to ease pressure against the opposition, he said. However, he added, it is unlikely other governments will speak out against the ruling parties.
“I don’t think other countries would want to sour their relations with Cambodia,” he said.