Cambodia to ease grip on opposition, media as EU threats bite

PHNOM PENH • Cambodia yesterday said banned opposition members may be allowed back into politics and shuttered media outlets could reopen as the European Union considers pulling a trade deal the country is loath to lose.

Numerous activists, journalists and government critics were released from jail in the months after strongman Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party won all parliamentary seats in July elections held without the main opposition party.

But the concessions did not deter the EU from threatening in October to suspend trade benefits in the wake of the vote - a move that would cripple the country's billion-dollar garment industry, its largest formal employer.

Though Prime Minister Hun Sen has baulked at the idea that international pressure can force his hand, analysts say he is in a tough spot with the EU and has to ease up on dissent to avoid losing the benefits.

The Supreme Court dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in a ruling a year ago as Mr Hun Sen homed in on critics before the vote, accusing the opposition party's leader of attempting to overthrow the government. More than 100 CNRP members were banned for five years from politics, and many fled the country or retreated from public affairs.

But Cambodia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Parliament was reviewing legislation to allow "individuals who were banned from politics to resume their political activities". The decision was made in the spirit of national reconciliation and to broaden democratic space, it said.

The statement did not mention the EU deal but said court cases involving unions could be expedited and news outlets like the English-language Cambodia Daily could be allowed to return if it paid errant tax bills. It said the US-backed Radio Free Asia, which also shut during escalating pressure on the media, was welcome to reopen its office.

Cambodia "cherishes promotion of freedom of press and freedom of expression", the ministry said.

Media advocates contend that audits were used to pressure outlets to cease operations last year and plug up independent reporting before the elections.

Reacting to all the proposed changes, CNRP member Mu Sochua said she "welcomes the news with caution".

Rights groups fear Cambodia is sliding towards authoritarianism with the help of China, which showers the government with loans and infrastructure while asking few questions about how the country is being run by Mr Hun Sen, who has been in power for 33 years.

Yesterday's statement did not bring up CNRP co-founder Kem Sokha, who was accused of treason during the crackdown and is now living under conditions that resemble house arrest.

National Assembly spokesman Leng Peng Long told reporters he was not sure whether all 118 banned opposition members, including Mr Kem Sokha, would be granted the right to come back into politics.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2018, with the headline 'Cambodia to ease grip on opposition, media as EU threats bite'. Print Edition | Subscribe