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Cambodia Supreme Court Bans Opposition Party -- WSJ

17 Nov 2017 7:32 am

Opponents call ruling by Supreme Court 'the end of democracy' ahead of 2018 election
By James Hookway in Bangkok and Sun Narin in Phnom Penh 

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (November 17, 2017).

Cambodia's Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the main opposition party, effectively turning the country into the world's newest one-party state and cementing long-serving leader Hun Sen's grip on power.

Prime Minister Hun Sen's government filed the suit to ban the Cambodia National Rescue Party after police arrested its chief figure, Kem Sokha, in Phnom Penh on Sept. 3 and charged him with treason. Prosecutors accused Mr. Kem Sokha of plotting to take over the country with the help of the U.S. But many political analysts and rights groups suggest that Mr. Hun Sen instead is ensuring that his own Cambodian People's Party will win national elections in 2018, after many of the country's opposition groups united behind the CNRP. Mr. Hun Sen has been in power for 32 years.

"Prime Minister Hun Sen seems afraid that he will lose elections scheduled for 2018, so he is using the nuclear option to destroy the opposition," said Brad Adams, Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch. "Although the Supreme Court is effectively an organ of the ruling party, it has a historic chance to show some independence and uphold the rule of law."

The U.S. and Australia expressed their concern about the court's ruling, with the White House saying in a statement that it would end its support for Cambodia's election commission. The European Union warned that the verdict could threaten Cambodia's duty and tariff-free access to the trade zone, which has helped the Southeast Asian nation build a textile industry that accounts for most of its exports.

"An electoral process from which the main opposition party has been arbitrarily excluded is not legitimate," an EU spokesperson said in a statement. "Respect of fundamental human rights is a prerequisite for Cambodia to continue to benefit from the EU's preferential Everything but Arms scheme."

So far, opposition leaders have avoided calling for sanctions that would affect the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on the garment industry for their livelihoods.

In a televised statement Thursday, Mr. Hun Sen offered his support for the verdict. "The royal government will still continue to be committed to the multiparty democracy and rule of law in accordance with the Cambodian constitution," he said. Mr. Hun Sen previously said he was willing to bet his life that the court would dissolve the CNRP.

Opposition spokesman Yim Sovann was reported by the Phnom Penh Post as saying, "This is the end of democracy in Cambodia."

Police surrounded the Supreme Court building in the capital from early morning in a bid to warn off protesters, while Mr. Hun Sen spent the early part of Thursday visiting workers in a textile factory. Local media reported him as saying to people there that they should stand behind him instead of "bowing your heads to foreigners."

Mr. Hun Sen, 65 years old, has proven himself a canny and sometimes ruthless political operator. In his youth, he was a battalion commander with the Khmer Rouge but after waves of internal purges he fled to Vietnam, where he emerged as a key figure in the rebel army that ultimately unseated the Khmer Rouge regime. He has served as prime minister since 1985, sometimes sharing power with royalist factions, but he has exercised sole power since 1998.

Some Cambodians credit Mr. Hun Sen for providing stable leadership after the long years of war and infighting. Under his watch, the country has become China's closest ally in Southeast Asia. Chinese investment has lifted the economy, which the government forecasts to grow at more than 7% this year, one of the fastest rates of growth in the world.

Some activists and human-rights groups complain that growth has been accompanied by widespread corruption. They say that Mr. Hun Sen himself has become increasingly dictatorial, particularly after 2013's national elections, when his party narrowly defeated a resurgent opposition. Mr. Hun Sen's opponents disputed the result, which triggered a wave of protests in Phnom Penh and a brutal crackdown. In January 2014, security forces opened fire on protesters, killing four people.

Since then, Mr. Hun Sen has pulled various legal and legislative levers to keep his opponents in check.

In January, he instructed his supporters in the National Assembly to abolish the position of minority leader, which would diminish CNRP's influence in the legislature.

In February, Mr. Hun Sen's government enacted a new law that makes it easier for the Supreme Court to dissolve a political party if it determines that it threatens national unity. The court is widely seen as being stacked with the prime minister's allies. Chief Justice Dith Munty is a member of the permanent committee of the Cambodian People's Party. Other top officials also have close connections to the ruling party or to Mr. Hun Sen's family.

The case to dissolve the party was largely based on the allegations against its leader, Mr. Kem Sokha. The only evidence the government has provided to support its treason allegations is a video clip dating from 2013 in which Mr. Kem Sokha discusses the opposition's plans to win power in Cambodia. In it, he mentions getting advice from American academics. The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh has denied that the U.S. is interfering in the country's politics, while Mr. Kem Sokha has said he was referring only to winning elections.

The Supreme Court's decision means more than 100 CNRP politicians are banned from office for five years. Mr. Hun Sen has said the opposition party's seats in Parliament will be allocated to smaller, pro-government parties.

Since Mr. Kem Sokha's arrest, about half of the CNRP's representatives in Parliament have left Cambodia.

Write to James Hookway at james.hookway@wsj.com
 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 17, 2017 02:32 ET (07:32 GMT)

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