The National Assembly on Tues-day stripped opposition leader Sam Rainsy of his seat, ending, for the time being, his career as an elected official nearly 20 years after he first entered the legislature.
National Assembly President Heng Samrin signed the one-page letter ordering that the former legislator be removed after the Supreme Court on March 1 upheld the conviction of Mr Rainsy, who remained abroad in self-imposed exile, for damaging public property and racial incitement in 2009.
“His Excellency Sam Rainsy must completely lose his rights, privileges and membership as the National Assembly’s legislator from Kompong Cham province,” the March 15 notice said.
By law, criminal convicts who have not served out their sentences cannot hold a seat in the legislature.
Speaking by telephone from France, Mr Rainsy brushed aside questions on how his removal would affect his party, adding that this was not the first time he was stripped of his post.
“Many of my colleagues have faced the same in the past,” he said, mentioning his and SRP lawmaker Cheam Channy’s 2005 convictions for defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen and attempting to overthrow the government, respectively. King Norodom Sihamoni later pardoned both on the premier’s request.
“Eventually, things will be settled. I’m not so worried,” Mr Rainsy added.
He also bristled at the idea that his nearly 17-month absence from Cambodia coupled with this week’s removal would weaken the SRP’s political prospects and its day-to-day operations.
“Things will continue. It’s business as usual,” he said, adding “There are millions of Sam Rainsys. The organization and the future of the party does not only rely on one individual.”
Mr Rainsy was convicted in January 2010 for leading villagers who removed six wooden border posts in Svey Rieng province in October 2009. Mr Rainsy was given a two-year prison term and ordered to pay $2,000 as well as to split a $13,750 fine with his two co-defendants—farmers Prum Chea and Meas Srey.
Mr Rainsy stated yesterday that he would continue to seek a “political solution” allowing him to return and that the SRP would not name a replacement for his vacant seat since the party did not recognize his removal.
“His Excellency is not a criminal but a hero to protect people and democracy,” said SRP spokesman Yim Sovann. “This makes the SRP stronger because all of the SRP’s members has a strong leadership.”
Mr Sovann named the ruling CPP as the reason behind Mr Rainsy’s legal troubles and removal from office. He called the situation a “political issue” and added that it threatened Cambodian democracy.
CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun denied that there had been any political pressure in dismissing Mr Rainsy, saying the Assembly was simply following the law.
Mr Rainsy’s political career began shortly after his return to Cambodia, when in 1993 he was elected as a member of Parliament for Funcinpec from Siem Reap province. He later became finance minister, only to be removed from the party after losing a vote of no-confidence in 1994. A year later, he founded the Khmer Nation Party, which was to become the SRP, which he has since steered.
Political observers said that the dismissal was a bad sign for both the SRP and other opposition parties in the upcoming 2013 national elections.
“This issue shows more pressure put on opposition parties on their freedom of expression,” said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, “and stops them from expressing their ideas, especially about the border issue.”