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Cambodia's largest opposition party on the brink of dissolution

Hun Sen, alarmed by election defeats, cracks down on criticism of government

The CNRP has put up signs across Cambodia calling for the immediate release of its leader, Kem Sokha. (Phnom Penh)

HANOI -- Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia and president of the ruling Cambodian People's Party, is turning up the heat on the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

On Monday, he spoke at the opening of a hotel in Siem Reap, a northwestern province of Cambodia, famous for the ancient Angkor Wat temple complex, and lashed out at the CNRP. "We have arrested a man in a treasonous act," he said. "We will continue whatever process is necessary because this has been systematic arrangement and collusion."

The "man" he referred to is Kem Sokha, president of the CNRP, who was arrested in early September on charges of treason. On that day, Hun Sen also directed his anger at CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua and other senior CNRP officials who called for the release of Kem Sokha, in speeches on Sunday at three locations in the country including Kompong Thom, central Cambodia. Hun Sen said, "I want to clarify that it will not end with the arrest [of Kem Sokha]. We will not allow anyone to commit treason, or destroy our country and security," implying that he is preparing to arrest other senior officials of the CNRP. Mu Sochua and others left the country the following day.

On Wednesday, Mu Sochua spoke to the Nikkei Asian Review at an undisclosed location in Southeast Asia outside Cambodia. "He is going against the will of the Cambodia people," she said. Hun Sen, who has been the country's leader since 1985, has made public his intention to continue to serve as prime minister for the next 10 years.

Facing dissolution

Now the CNRP is facing dissolution. The trial of Kem Sokha, its arrested leader, will soon start in earnest. If he is found guilty, the CNRP will be forced to disband under the revised political party law, which took effect in February. A newly added provision requires a political party to be dissolved if its chief is indicted and found guilty. "This regulatory revision seems to be aimed at destroying the CNRP," said one Cambodian journalist.

Cambodia's general election is set for 2018, and will include the lower house, which has the power to approve the cabinet. The election is having a huge impact on politics in Cambodia. In the previous general election in 2013, the CNRP made great strides, and now has 55 of the 123 seats in the lower house, compared with 68 seats held by the CPP. Hun Sen's almost 32-year rule as the head of the country has led to corruption and nepotism, and the CNRP is considered political salvation for frustrated voters.

If the CNRP disappears before the election and there is no other party for unhappy voters to choose, this would be a huge advantage for the ruling party.

Why now?

The biggest reason for Hun Sen's aggressive actions against the main opposition is that commune elections in June 2017 revealed a decline in the power of the ruling party. The CNRP won 30% of the country's 1,646 communes, 12 times its total in the previous local elections in 2012. In addition to major cities including the nation's capital Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the CPP also lost in Kampong Cham, Hun Sen's home province and political base. The view that the ruling party will likely continue to struggle in the 2018 general election is gaining ground, given that voters rebelled against the "Hun Sen dynasty," which once seemed impregnable.

Hun Sen has no plans to give up the prime minister position anytime soon.

The Hun Sen government also appears to be clamping down on free speech. The English-language newspaper Cambodia Daily, which had been at the forefront of criticism of the ruling party, ceased publishing after its Sept. 4 edition. The tax authorities had discovered a shortfall in tax payments and ordered the newspaper to pay a hefty penalty of $6.3 million, and it had no choice but to close. A U.S. group had invested in the paper.

The CNRP does not have many defenses against the government's attacks. In late September, the party asked for the release of Kem Sokha, but the appeal court in Phnom Penh denied the request. After that, Mu Sochua and other CNRP officials continued to campaign all over the country, reminding people to register to vote in the general election, and to choose the CNRP. But now that many senior party officials have fled the country, rallying public support has become difficult.

The party put up panels and banners across the country to stimulate public demands for the release of Kem Sokha, but some of them were torn down.

The U.S. and European Union criticized Kem Sokha's arrest shortly after it happened. But Hun Sen seems not to care about it because he has a strong backer -- China. The Chinese government has offered huge financial support to Cambodia, and Chinese companies are investing in the country. Even if economic sanctions are imposed on Cambodia due to human rights violations, the Hun Sen government seems to think the country will not be affected.

Valuable ally

Cambodia is a valuable ally for China, as it often takes China's side on the issue of territorial rights in the South China Sea in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In recent ASEAN meetings, member countries have often failed to adopt a joint statement to criticize China, thanks to Cambodian opposition.

On Wednesday, the Cambodian Youth Party, an opposition group that has no seat in the lower house, submitted to the Interior Ministry a petition for the dissolution of the CNRP, citing the fact that leader was arrested on treason charges. Other opposition parties also fear attacks from the Hun Sen government. Cambodia's general election is fast approaching, while the dominance of the ruling party is increasing.

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