PHNOM PENH (AFP) - The self-exiled leader of Cambodia's opposition party said on Saturday (Feb 11) he would resign his post, a shock blow to a movement struggling to unseat the country's authoritarian premier.
Sam Rainsy, who has led the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) since its creation in 2012 and has spent over a year in France to avoid several lawsuits, announced his resignation from the party on Twitter and Facebook.
The sudden move casts doubt over a party that poses the only viable challenge to strongman Hun Sen's 32-year rule in a general poll scheduled for 2018.
"I resign as CNRP leader for the sake of the party. In all circumstances I cherish and uphold the CNRP's ideals in my heart," wrote the 67-year-old, who has been a major force in Cambodian politics for decades.
His resignation comes shortly after Hun Sen proposed amending political party laws to bar convicts from leadership positions - a clear threat to Rainsy, who has long been his top foe and the target of his political machinations.
The opposition leader has not visited Cambodia since 2015, when he fled to France to avoid a two-year jail term for defamation, which his supporters say was politically-motivated.
In December, a Phnom Penh court handed him a five-year prison sentence over a post on his Facebook page - a conviction that made any imminent return from exile even more unlikely.
Hun Sen also lodged a one-million-dollar defamation lawsuit against Rainsy last month and threatened to seize the CNRP's headquarters if he wins the case.
The party's spokesman Yim Sovann told AFP he had no other information about Rainsy's decision to step down on Saturday, saying only that it was motivated by "personal reasons".
Rainsy's deputy, Kem Sokha, who has been serving as acting leader, is expected to guide the party as it prepares for local commune elections in June.
Sebastian Strangio, an expert on Cambodian politics, said it was unlikely that Rainsy was bowing out for good and would perhaps try to return before 2018 elections.
"He is stepping aside so the party can move forward, unburdened by his legal sideshow with the Cambodian judiciary," Strangio added.
Although nominally a democracy, Cambodia has been ruled for more than three decades by Hun Sen, a shrewd political operator who has amassed extensive control over the government, armed forces and economy.
Ever since he nearly lost his office to the CNRP in 2013, rights groups say Hun Sen has been bent on dismantling the opposition, using pliant courts to target his rivals and other critics.
Hun Sen claims to have brought much needed peace and stability to an impoverished nation ravaged by decades of civil war and the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.
But opposition groups have drawn growing support in recent years amid disillusionment with the endemic corruption and rights abuses that have flourished under his watch.