About 2,000 Cambodian opposition supporters rallied Wednesday to demand election reforms and guarantees their leader Sam Rainsy can return to the kingdom to contest polls this year without arrest.
Kem Sokha (right), vice president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, speaks at a demonstration in Freedom Park in Phnom Penh on April 24, 2013. About 2,000 Cambodian opposition supporters rallied Wednesday to demand election reforms and guarantees their leader Sam Rainsy can return to the kingdom to contest polls this year without arrest.
Demonstrators from the recently-formed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) gathered at a park in the capital Phnom Penh holding banners reading "Without Sam Rainsy no free and fair election!".
Rainsy, who lives in self-imposed exile in France, faces 11 years jail if he returns after he was jailed in absentia for charges that included publishing a "false map" of the border with Vietnam, claiming the neighbour holds Cambodian territory.
The protesters also urged the National Election Committee (NEC) to amend the voter list amid allegations a recent update saw more than a million names culled from the records.
The opposition accuses the NEC of being a tool of strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen. In November, the NEC said Rainsy could not stand in the July polls because of his convictions.
"We will not end our demands until the NEC introduces reforms and amends the voter list so that all Cambodian people can vote freely," Kem Sokha, deputy head of CNRP, told the crowd, warning of further protests.
But Tep Nytha, secretary-general of the NEC, refuted the opposition accusations, calling them "politically-motivated" and adding it was not the duty of the election body to decide whether to allow Rainsy's return.
Hun Sen last week warned that the country risks civil war if the opposition wins polls after Rainsy pledged to convict unnamed members of the government over their alleged roles under the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.
Rainsy has previously branded the prime minister a "coward" for barring him from running in the election and accused the incumbent of using the NEC to block his bid for office -- something the premier has repeatedly denied.
His party has only a slim chance of gaining enough votes to oust Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since 1985 and has vowed to stay in power until he is 90.
Hun Sen Warns of ‘War’ if He Loses Election
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen warned Friday that the country would plunge into civil war if the opposition National Rescue Party wins the election in July and follows through on pledges to prosecute former notorious Khmer Rouge members in his government.
His comments followed a statement this week by exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy that if his party wins the July 28 polls, it will bring unnamed members of the current government to justice for their role in the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed millions of Cambodians during its 1975-79 reign of terror.
Speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony in Kompong Speu province, Hun Sen, who is himself ex-Khmer Rouge, warned that he would not be waiting around to be arrested.
"I will not allow anyone to arrest me easily,” he said, adding that he would “respond immediately” to anyone who tried.
He said that a win by the National Rescue Party (NRP) would provoke a civil war and war with Cambodia’s neighbor Vietnam.
“If you accuse the neighboring country of invasion, war within the country and with neighboring countries would be inevitable.”
The Cambodian opposition has also previously pledged to reclaim an island off the country’s southern coast from Vietnam if they win the elections. Phu Quoc Island—known in Khmer as Koh Tral Island—has been administered by Vietnam for the last 150 years.
'We don't provoke war'
NRP spokesman Yim Sovann dismissed Hun Sen’s statement, saying that the party supports peace and that its policies would not provoke war, either within the country or with its neighbors.
“The National Rescue Party guarantees that there will be no war,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that Hun Sen’s comments show he fears losing the election.
“We don't allow anyone to provoke war,” he said.
Khmer Rouge tribunal
Sam Rainsy, in a video address on Wednesday on the anniversary of the Khmer Rouge capture of Phnom Penh in 1975, said former members of the regime now working in the government are “hindering” the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal trying members of the Khmer Rouge leadership for crimes committed during their bloody rule.
The tribunal, which has so far completed only one case and has two elderly former Khmer Rouge leaders in the dock, came under criticism for being slow in processing its cases after a top Khmer Rouge leader died last month before receiving a conviction.
Sam Rainsy made the address from overseas, as he is living in self-imposed exile in France to avoid prison for a string of convictions that critics contend are politically motivated, including a sentence on charges linked to a protest over border demarcation with Vietnam.
In November, the National Election Committee said Sam Rainsy could not stand in the coming elections because of his convictions. He has called Hun Sen a “coward” for barring him from contesting in the polls.
Land titling program
Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since 1985, predicted in the Friday speech that his own Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will win the election.
He estimated that the NRP could draw fewer than 5 million votes.
CPP officials have said their party has 6 million supporters and 4 million active members.
Hun Sen also warned voters that a volunteer land titling program he launched in which young people help villagers register land would be scrapped if his party was not in power.
"To those whose lands have not been measured and those who have not been given land titles, I would like to inform you that the youths can return to work only if the CPP wins the election,” he said.
“If you want the youths to come back, there is only one choice for you: to vote for the CPP.”
Rights groups have expressed concerns about the transparency of Cambodia’s elections, and watchdogs say voters are intimidated into supporting the government through restrictions on freedom of expression, rights abuses, and land disputes.
Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC) Executive Director Puthea Hang said voters should stay calm in the face of intimidation and vote for the political party that they believe best serves the country.
"Voters should make their own decisions; they should not vote one way or another because they are persuaded or threatened to do so. That is the right of all voters.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.