Cambodia king pardons opposition leader ahead of elections

Sam Rainsy's pardon comes after US lawmakers threatened this week to cut aid to Cambodia if the elections were not free and fair. 

Heng Sinith/AP/File
Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy speaks to reporters outside the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2006.

The Cambodian king gave a royal pardon today to the leader of the main opposition party ahead of elections this month, signaling a government effort to add the gloss of fairness to an otherwise compromised election.

The king’s pardon overturns an 11-year jail term to which Sam Rainsy had been sentenced and paves the way for him to return to Cambodia from exile. Still, Mr. Rainsy has not yet been reinstated to his political party, and many observers say it is unlikely he will be allowed to compete in the elections.

Analysts say that the pardon is little more that a gesture, and expect the election on July 28  to be the least free election in Cambodia since the violent inaugural election in 1993, noting a recent media clampdown, vamped-up efforts to cripple the opposition, and a political structure that supports the ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP), that will ensure that the CPP wins – again.

“The pardon is only an attempt for the government to pretend that it is a democracy,” says Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There’s so much wrong with the electoral system that it’s too late for this to be a free and fair election, even with Sam Rainsy back.”

“This is not a contested election – there is zero chance that the CPP will allow the opposition to win,” he added.

Cambodia is officially a democracy, but the CPP has won all of the country’s four elections since the country gained its independence in 1979. Its leader and the country’s prime minister, Hun Sen, has been in power for almost three decades.

Rainsy, the head of the leading opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, had been living in exile in France since 2009, when he was convicted of spreading false information and falsifying maps – charges widely believed to be politically motivated. His pardon comes after American lawmakers threatened this week to cut aid to Cambodia if the elections were not free and fair.

As elections approach, Hun Sen has tightened an already firm hold on the media. On June 30, the Cambodian government issued a ban on all foreign Khmer-language radio for the week before the election, overriding an earlier, much-derided ban on the outlets for the entire campaign season.

The new ban will deprive voters of the foreign radio providers that are the main source of reliable information for Cambodians, since CPP-affiliates preside over most Cambodian Khmer-language media. 

“Control of Cambodia’s media is structurally skewed in favor of the ruling Cambodia’s People’s Party and against the political opposition, a fact that has long weighed against the integrity of the country’s electoral politics,” says Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ senior Southeast Asia representative. “The opposition will face an uphill battle in delivering its campaign message to voters at this year’s polls.” 

And despite Rainsy’s popularity – he has nearly double the social media supporters than Hun Sen – and his pending return, Cambodia’s leading opposition party remains strapped. 

In June, the government released a tape of Kem Sokha, whose father was one of the estimated 1.7 million people to die under the Khmer Rouge regime during the 1970s, allegedly commenting that the torture documented at the Khmer Rouge S-21 prison had been fabricated. The National Assembly, which had earlier that month booted out all opposition members, then passed a law criminalizing genocide denial. The government also staged protests across the country against the oppositionist, drawing crowds of some 30,000 people.

To vote for the opposition was to endorse a genocide denier, the CPP seemed to suggest.

“This is an extremely dangerous accusation in a country that is still struggling to address its past," says Naly Pilorge, director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights, a Cambodian nongovernmental organization. “It’s playing on people’s trauma and memory.”

The attacks on the media and the opposition also come within an electoral environment riddled with accusations of abject fraud and voter intimidation. The CPP, which dominates Cambodian political offices, chooses the members of the National Election Committee. This year, a National Democratic Institute independent audit of 4,900 voters found that about 10 percent of registered voters did not exist and that some villages listed in the voting records had been completely invented. 

The Cambodian government has denied such allegations.

“Cambodia is a sovereign state,” said Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, at a press conference in Phnom Penh, after the American bid to curb aid.

“They can say whatever they want, but the decision on the future of Cambodia is in the hands of the Cambodian people,” he said.

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