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Cambodia's PM wants law change to shut door on opponents

Hun Sen seeks to bar dual citizens from top posts as crackdown splinters rivals

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures during a speech in Phnom Penh in January 2020. The authoritarian leader has ruled the Southeast Asian country for more than three decades.   © AP

PHNOM PENH -- Hun Sen, Cambodia's prime minister for more than three decades, will make it even more difficult for some of his longtime opponents to seek to replace him ahead of elections in 2022 and 2023 by making top posts off-limits to dual nationals.

Riled by a now-corrected mistake in a British newspaper, Hun Sen's government is set to alter the country's constitution to exclude dual citizens from top political positions.

After the story in The Guardian last week wrongly asserted he held Cypriot citizenship, Hun Sen is carrying out this long held threat. This will affect prominent opposition politicians who are dual nationals, including Sam Rainsy, who had led the Cambodia National Rescue Party -- a party forced to dissolve ahead of 2018 parliamentary elections.

The proposed amendments are the latest rule change pushed by the leader whose prolonged crackdown on political rivals has fragmented opposition parties.

Likely to be passed soon, the changes would mean the posts of prime minister, presidents of the National Assembly and Senate, and the head of the Constitutional Council, a top judicial body, could only be held by people with sole Cambodian citizenship.

The Guardian story prompted hyperbolic outrage from Hun Sen and his acolytes -- particularly after it was promoted on social media by Rainsy, who lives in exile in Paris. Hun Sen does not hold a passport from the island nation but several of his inner circle including relatives do, as revealed by a Reuters investigation in 2019.

In a thinly veiled swipe, Hun Sen on Facebook said the proposed amendment would "shut the door" on people with dual citizenships who aspired to lead the country, also claiming the change was needed to avoid "foreign interference."

Responding, Rainsy said he would renounce his French citizenship if necessary and called for term limits on Cambodia's top office. Hun Sen has been prime minister for over three decades.

The tussle comes as a new round of voter registration opens this month ahead of next year's elections to decide the heads of Cambodia's 1,600-odd communes.

The ballot will be the first since the widely-panned 2018 national election, in which Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party took all the parliamentary seats after the state-controlled judiciary forcibly dissolved the CNRP. The next parliamentary election is scheduled for 2023.

Formed out of a merger of two smaller parties led by Rainsy and Kem Sokha, the CNRP had come close to toppling the CPP in 2013, winning almost half that year's vote and sparking the largest protests in Cambodia's modern history.

Following the 2017 commune election, in which the CNRP again performed well, authorities arrested Sokha on spurious treason charges, banned more than 100 of its members from politics, and prosecuted hundreds more supporters.

The Guardian story that wrongly asserted that Hun Sen held Cypriot citizenship. (Screenshot from The Guardian's website) 

Several former CNRP members have begun launching new political parties after requesting so-called political "rehabilitation" from authorities. At least six new parties linked to former CNRP members have emerged.

Among them is the Cambodia National Love Party co-founded last year by Kang Kimhak, a former CNRP parliamentarian, who said the opposition needed to "move forward."

"We will collect the spirit of the former CNRP so that we have a chance of involvement in politics to help the country and the people," he said.

The merits of adding more small parties, which have not been competitive in past elections, are debated. The CPP often uses the existence of such opponents to claim Cambodia remains democratic.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay doesn't see a constructive role for the new groups, saying they will only split opposition ranks.

"I see the recent emergence of several new parties as yet another brilliant success of the salami tactics used to divide and conquer by our prime minister," Mong Hay said.

"[Hun Sen has used such parties] to assert his power, to secure recognition and support... and to get the opposition to surrender to him."

Cambodia researcher Astrid Noren-Nilsson said the new parties were a small step toward some degree of political competition, particularly if they cooperated closely or merged.

"If the opposition is ever going to be able to push for a more competitive version of politics -- no one is talking about a change of government -- there needs to be an electoral vehicle," said Noren-Nilsson, a senior lecturer at the Centre for East and Southeast Asian Studies at Sweden's Lund University.

"Some of them will merge but the question is to what extent they will read government signals and push in a way that is attuned to these, and to what extent this will be a more contentious or turbulent process."

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