A move by Cambodia’s single-party parliament to allow banned politicians to potentially return to politics has further stoked divisions in the country’s fractured opposition, with some welcoming the development and others dismissing it as a political gambit.
The National Assembly on Thursday easily passed an amendment to the Law on Political Parties, paving the way for opposition figures from the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to apply for the lifting of a five-year ban to regain their political rights.
CNRP cofounder Sam Rainsy told Al Jazeera the move is just a “trick” by the government meant to avoid international sanctions, claiming that only party officials willing to “sell their souls to [Prime Minister] Hun Sen for privileges and positions” would be willing to return.
But Kem Monovithya, daughter of Kem Sokha, the CNRP leader who is currently under house arrest, said the development is something the party had been working towards and blasted Rainsy for holding it “hostage”.
Hun Sen has overseen a forceful political crackdown against opposition figures in recent years, culminating in the 2017 dissolution of the CNRP and the jailing of Kem Sokha. More than 100 members of the main opposition party were also banned from politics, with prominent officials such as Vice President Mu Sochua Kem Monovithya fleeing the country.
The CNRP’s dissolution paved the way for Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to extend its decades-long grip on power. In July, it won in a landslide an essentially unopposed general election – with the CNRP out of the race spoiled ballots took second place in the poll.
The main opposition party, which almost won the 2013 vote, was outlawed after being accused of plotting to overthrow the government, but its dissolution was sharply condemned from members of the international community, including threats of sanctions from the United States and European Union.
Recently, the EU warned it might revoke its Everything But Arms (EBA) deal with Cambodia, a preferential trade agreement that allows the Southeast Asian country to export duty- and quota-free garments and other goods to the 28-member bloc. An EBA cancellation would cost Cambodia more than $600m and could antagonise the garment industry which has historically been prone to protests.
While Hun Sen has denied that he is concerned about the possibility of sanctions, his recent actions have suggested otherwise – in September, Kem Sokha was abruptly released from prison and transferred to house arrest after ominous statements from the EU.
Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a political scientist who specialises in Cambodia, said the new developments should be understood as an overture to the international community.
“The EU should not discard it as an empty reform, but seize on it to open up for constructive dialogue with the Cambodian government,” said Noren-Nilsson.
George Edgar, EU ambassador to Cambodia, also seemed to welcome the recent reforms.
“We took good note of the government statement of December 3 setting out planned actions in order to improve the political climate and democratic space for Cambodia’s citizens,” he said in an email to Al Jazeera.
“There are many positive elements in the statement. We look forward to seeing those plans implemented over the coming weeks,” he added.
The amendment allowing CNRP officials to return to politics does come with some troubling caveats, however. The CNRP will remain banned and cases will be analysed on an individual basis. Anybody wishing to return must make the request to Hun Sen or Interior Minister Sar Kheng. The prime minister meanwhile has warned that any politicians who do not recognise the legality of the CNRP’s dissolution would be arrested.
Rainsy, who believes Thursday’s move is just a political manoeuvre that will result in real reform, said Hun Sen will simply use this as an excuse to avoid having to reinstate the CNRP as a whole.
“Then he would tell the European Union that the bulk of the CNRP has joined the CPP to ‘restore democracy; and that there is no need to reinstate the ‘old CNRP’,” Rainsy said via email.
While not technically one of the 118 banned politicians, Rainsy has been kept away from Cambodia since 2015 due to a slew of convictions, which his supporters say were politically motivated. In 2017, he stepped down as CNRP president after threats to dissolve the party for being led by a convicted felon.
On Thursday, Kem Monovithya fiercely attacked Rainsy’s position and his ability to speak for the 118 politicians who were hit last year with the five-year ban.
“Sam Rainsy is running a smear campaign that anyone returning is Hun Sen’s puppet, despite this is something CNRP had been advocating and the international community has called for,” she told Al Jazeera.
The CNRP, which was originally founded after Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha joined forces, has become increasingly fractured along those lines since the latter’s arrest.
Sam Rainsy attempted to resume a leadership role, claiming Kem Sokha cannot speak freely while under Hun Sen’s thumb. He eventually declared himself acting president, a decision that was vehemently rejected by Kem Monovithya and others in Kem Sokha’s camp.
“He’s destructive to CNRP and himself,” Kem Monovithya said.