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Rainsy calls for popular uprising in Cambodia

Accused of insulting the king, exiled opposition leader claims the regime is using the monarch to gain legitimacy

Erin Handley, Phnom Penh

Erin Handley, Phnom Penh

Published: June 12, 2018 04:43 AM GMT

Updated: June 12, 2018 04:53 AM GMT

Rainsy calls for popular uprising in Cambodia

People ride motorcycles past a poster of Cambodian opposition party leader Kem Sokha (center) and former opposition party leader Sam Rainsy (right) in Kandal province in July 2017. Both politicians are facing legal attacks. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy has called for a popular uprising in Cambodia after the July 29 national elections to force a change of government.

The former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president called on the armed forces and people to stand united to fight the ruling Cambodian People's Party-led government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, The Phnom Penh Post reported.

Speaking during an interview with Radio Free Asia, Rainsy appealed to all corners of the kingdom to fight Hun Sen's leadership after the election.

"At that time, the international community will not communicate with Hun Sen's government like today. After the July 29 election, it will be a new situation and I, in my capacity as president of the CNRM (Cambodia National Rescue Movement), appeal to all Cambodians to stand up together. As you see, everything around us is dissolved. They sell everything. Nothing remains," said Rainsy. 

Cambodian People's Party spokesman Sok Eysan said Rainsy's call for an uprising will not influence Cambodians or the armed forces. He said the call was nothing more than rabble rousing.

"The election has not been held yet. Why won't the international community recognise it? Cambodians have not voted yet, and Rainsy has spoken too soon. This is just the prejudgment of convict Rainsy," he said.

The Cambodian government is continuing its campaign of legal attacks on the opposition in the lead-up to the election.

The kingdom's justice minister has ordered the courts to prosecute Rainsy under newly minted lese majeste laws that criminalize criticism of the king. 

Rainsy last week alleged a letter from King Sihamoni, which urged the Cambodian public to vote in the July 29 poll, was either a forgery or penned under duress.

Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana on June 8 demanded Phnom Penh's Municipal Court prosecute Rainsy for insulting the king. The controversial offense was legalized in March and carries a prison sentence of up to five years.

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Rainsy said Hun Sen was using the king "to artificially save the legitimacy of his unpopular regime" and was using laws to unfairly target the opposition. 

"In Cambodia's perverted democracy Hun Sen's [Cambodian People's Party] is using their rubber-stamp National Assembly to produce self-serving laws to continuously change the rules of the game when it comes to manipulating elections and securing undemocratic victories," he said. 

Cambodian People's Party spokesman Suos Yara hit back at Rainsy's claims. "It's not true. The law is the law. It is fair to everyone," he said. "This is all carried out by the judiciary, so we are not involved in that. We respect the principles of the separation of powers. Law is the only way to guarantee democracy."

Suon Chamroeun, a CNRP activist from the northwest province of Battambang, said he and half the country felt democracy had been wrenched from their grasp and they were ultimately disenfranchised by the forced dissolution of the CNRP in November. 

"We have hunger for change, then hopelessness and fear," he said, describing the shock he and others felt after the party was taken out of contention. "But we still struggle and fight for freedom."

Chamroeun said the past five years, since the previous national election where the CNRP took a large chunk of the vote, had seen political awareness swell in rural communities, thanks to the reach of social media and chit-chat in street-side cafes. 

The latest case is just one in a slew of legal measures taken against Rainsy, and comes days after bail was rejected, yet again, for his successor Kem Sokha. 

Sokha was arrested in September last year on allegations of treason, a charge observers have labelled politically motivated. The CNRP — the only party that stood a chance at toppling Hun Sen and his 33-year rule — was subsequently dissolved and banned from taking part in the July election.  

Judges last week deemed releasing Sokha would cause chaos, his lawyer was quoted as saying in The Phnom Penh Post.

But Sokha's daughter and former CNRP official Kem Monovithya said the opposite was true. "It's quite the contrary. His continued illegal detention may cause chaos," she said.

Human rights defenders from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights were also summonsed for questioning in Sokha's case last week, stoking fears they, like the Adhoc 5 in 2016, could be targeted for arrest. 

Observers have noted the swift passage of laws over the past year designed to sideline the opposition amount to a weaponization of the law.

"Law and application of it should be fair, equal and predictable. Unfortunately, that's not the case in Cambodia," said political analyst Ou Virak. 

"There's always uncertainty whether you have committed a crime or not … the fear created through this uncertainty is what makes the court an effective tool of suppression."

Two Cambodians were arrested last month for allegedly insulting the king, and police have increasingly detained individual citizens for airing views contrary to the government line. 

But whether Rainsy is prosecuted under the law for encouraging voters to boycott the election or not, Chamroeun has already made up his mind. 

"It's a fake election, so I won't vote," he said. "It's like a kid against a strongman."

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