Donors Silent As CPP Plots Party-Busting Legislation

The National Assembly will vote on Monday on landmark legislation giving the government unprecedented new powers to suspend and dissolve its political rivals, and with barely a note of concern from the democracies helping bankroll the country.

The Assembly’s permanent committee set the date on Wednesday morning, calling the rubber-stamp parliament back to session months ahead of schedule specifically for a vote on the amendments to the Law on Political Parties.

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Prime Minister Hun Sen is seen on a television screen speaking during a plenary session of parliament earlier this month in Phnom Penh.

The CPP has moved on the changes with uncommon speed since they were proposed earlier this month by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who made clear they were aimed at the CNRP, his only viable challenger in coming commune and national elections.

“We hope that our dialogue partner in the National Assembly will join the plenary session to debate it,” CPP lawmaker and spokesman Chheang Vun told reporters after Wednesday’s committee meeting, referring to the CNRP.

Only the day before, Mr. Vun bragged about the CPP’s power to ram the changes through thanks to its majority of seats in parliament.

Opposition lawmaker Ho Vann said his party asked the CPP to delay the vote to give all parties time to discuss and debate the proposed changes but was shot down. “It’s too little time,” he said. “It’s impetuous.”

Lacking the votes to defeat any legislation, the CNRP has made a habit of boycotting Assembly sessions on controversial proposals to show its disapproval. But Mr. Vann said the party had yet to decide whether to attend on Monday.

The CNRP and election observers say the pending amendments would violate the country’s Constitution.

Once approved, the Supreme Court, widely believed to be in the CPP’s thrall, will be allowed to dissolve any party over the conviction of a single top official and bar its entire leadership from political activity for five years. Even before a case reaches the court, the Interior Ministry will be able to suspend any party for as long as it wants over a short list of vaguely worded infractions including “subverting liberal multi-party democracy” and “in­citement that would lead to national disintegration.”

The mere threat of the amendments has already pushed exiled CNRP president Sam Rainsy, wanted for arrest over a years-old defamation conviction widely seen as politically motivated, into resigning from the party in hopes of saving it from dissolution. Several other CNRP officials, however, including its acting president, Kem Sokha, remain under the shadow of active criminal charges or investigations.

CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith, left, and the CPP spokesman Chheang Vun speak to reporters after a National Assembly permanent committee meeting in Phnom Penh. (Khem Sovannara)

Despite the existential threat the amendments pose to the CPP’s only viable election rival, the international community, which has spent billions of dollars to bring elections back to Cambodia and keep the government running, has said next to nothing since Mr. Hun Sen set the legislative wheels in motion.

The pre-emptive statements the U.N. and its democratic member states have routinely issued in the past urging Cambodia to reconsider or even abandon legislative proposals threatening the country’s fledgling democracy have not come this time around. Even the E.U. and Japan, heavily involved in the most recent election reforms, have stayed quiet.

Only when asked did the E.U. issue a statement saying it believes that all Cambodians should have the chance “to choose whom they wish to represent them,” and that authorities should “make every effort to create a political environment in which opposition parties and civil society can all function freely.”

Asked for comment, the U.S. Embassy said all parties should have the chance to contest the coming elections and that any amendments to the Law on Political Parties that stand in the way “would be counterproductive and contrary to the desires of the Cambodian public.” It encouraged authorities to consult with international partners and nongovernment groups while considering any new legislation.

The Japanese Embassy said only that it was watching the bill with “keen interest.”

Neither the U.N.’s human rights office nor its independent special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, have said anything.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for the U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said the government was acting fast deliberately to avoid the difficulties it had passing a similarly controversial law on NGOs, dubbed LANGO, which was held up for years in the face of severe international criticism.

“This draft law is moving at lightning speed through the government so critics who would oppose it on human rights and democracy grounds are having a tough time catching up. The lesson the government learned from its experience with LANGO is ‘don’t consult, and jam it through fast,’ with the result being that Cambodia is becoming a much more dictatorial place,” he said.

“Hun Sen’s political campaign for the 2018 election appears to be primarily comprised of destroying whatever remains of the country’s democratic institutions, and donors should not let him get away with this.”

But analysts say the international bodies and foreign governments that have nudged the CPP toward democracy—at least temporarily—in the past have far less sway over a Cambodia increasingly reliant on aid and investment from China.

Commenting on Tuesday on the government’s increasingly muscular stance, with the U.N. in particular, Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank, said the attitude was likely to last.

“I would assume that we would see more of that in the coming years, particularly given the rise of China,” he said. “Western aid seems a lot less significant now.”,

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