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article imageCambodia hits back at US over opposition party ban

By Suy SE (AFP)     Nov 17, 2017 in World

Cambodia on Friday hit back at critics of its ban on the country's main opposition, calling the United States "ringleaders" of an alleged coup plot by the party and threatening to build closer ties with Russia and China.

The row emerged after Cambodia's Supreme Court, effectively controlled by strongman premier Hun Sen, outlawed the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and banned more than 100 of its politicians Thursday, accusing the party of attempting to overthrow the government.

Washington, along with the European Union, demanded Cambodia reverse the ban and warned the dissolution of the party was a setback for democracy that would strip next year's elections of legitimacy.

But a spokesman for Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) said Friday the decision to dissolve the CNRP was in line with the law, adding the country would be fine without US support.

"If the EU and US won't assist us, there are countries like Russia, China, Japan and South Korea who would help us continue the democracy," Sok Eysan told AFP, calling Washington the "ringleaders" of CNRP's alleged coup plans.

Washington has previously rejected Cambodia's allegations of American involvement in plotting to oust the government as baseless.

Cambodia faced a chorus of condemnation from the US, EU and the United Nations following Thursday's ruling that essentially allows Hun Sen's party to run uncontested in 2018 polls.

The CNRP is the country's only viable opposition party, and it nearly unseated the CPP in 2013 elections.

The Supreme Court verdict is the culmination of a strangling of dissent in Cambodia, with CNRP president Kem Sokha jailed for treason in September as part of a crackdown that has also seen media outlets shuttered, journalists jailed and activists harassed.

The United States called for the Cambodian government to "undo its recent actions against the CNRP (and) release imprisoned CNRP leader Kem Sokha" in a statement from the White House.

Cambodian police block a street during a hearing at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh  on November 16 ...
Cambodian police block a street during a hearing at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh, on November 16, 2017

"On current course, next year's election will not be legitimate, free, or fair," the statement said, adding the US would pull support for Cambodia's National Election Committee.

Although US President Donald Trump met with Hun Sen at a regional summit last week, the US leader did not comment on the brewing political crisis.

- EU, UN rebuke -

Washington's condemnation came after the European Union said next year's elections have been stripped of credibility with the CNRP pulled from the race.

"A situation in which all parties, including the CNRP, their leaders and their supporters are able to carry out freely their legitimate functions, must be swiftly restored," an EU spokesperson said in a statement.

It warned that "respect of fundamental human rights" is a prerequisite of Cambodia's duty-free access to the bloc's markets.

The UN later echoed the concerns, calling accusations against the CNRP "vague".

"The use of law against the CNRP and its members is a smokescreen -– it is the rule by law, and not the rule of law," the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, said in a statement.

In addition to assaults against the opposition party  Cambodia's government has shut down a ser...
In addition to assaults against the opposition party, Cambodia's government has shut down a series of outspoken NGOs and independent news outlets, including the respected Cambodia Daily

Cambodia largely relies on trade with the US and EU to bolster economic growth following a savage civil war that ended in 1975.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected, has ruled the country since 1985 and says he has brought much-needed peace and stability to the impoverished nation.

But he is also accused of squeezing out his rivals through well-timed crackdowns and dubious court cases.

Analysts say he has been emboldened by financial backing from Beijing, which has lavished the country with investment that has made it less dependent on aid from Western democracies.

- 'Unjust' -

The CNRP said it still considers itself a legitimate party and plans to stand in next year's election, even though more than half its 55 lawmakers have fled the country.

Rights groups slammed Thursday's ruling, with HRW saying the decision signalled the "death of democracy" and Amnesty International calling it a "blatant act of political repression".

Observers say the current climate of repression is harsher than previous clampdowns, with Hun Sen foregoing even the pretense of respecting human rights and a free press.

In addition to assaults against the CNRP, his government has shut down a series of outspoken NGOs and independent news outlets, including the respected Cambodia Daily.

In Cambodia's sleepy capital Phnom Penh, life returned to normal Friday for some residents too scared to protest the verdict delivered at Thursday's heavily-guarded trial.

"Most people don't support the court's decision but I just stay quiet," tuk-tuk driver Ly Huor told AFP, vowing to vote next year.

"It's very unjust. It's like they are robbing the will of the people."


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