PHNOM PENH: Cambodia's opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Monday branded strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen a "coward" for barring him from running in a key general election later this year.
Sen's main rival, lives in self-imposed exile in France to avoid prison
for a string of convictions that critics contend are politically
In November the 63-year-old Rainsy was told he could
not stand in the polls because of his convictions by the National
Election Committee (NEC), a body he says is a tool of the premier.
accused Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since 1985 and has vowed to
stay in power until he is 90, of using the NEC to block his election bid
- something the premier has repeatedly denied.
"I think Hun Sen
is a coward because there are only two challengers," he told AFP by
telephone from Yangon, where he met Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung
San Suu Kyi.
"But Hun Sen dares not to compete with me. He uses a
kangaroo court to blame me so that he can go into the ring and fight
Hun Sen, 61, is routinely accused of suppressing
political freedoms and violating the rights of dissidents, but analysts
say he remains firmly entrenched in power.
Rainsy, who leads the
recently-formed Cambodia National Rescue Party, said he still harboured
hopes of running in July's election and expressed confidence his party
could end Hun Sen's 28-year grip on power.
Suggesting Hun Sen is
committing "political suicide" by not allowing him to compete, Rainsy
warned he will "start a strong movement to topple" any government formed
by the election.
He also accused the NEC of handing Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) landslide victories in successive elections.
Sam Rainsy is one of the most outspoken figures in Cambodian politics
but has lived in self-imposed exile in France since 2009, and faces a
total of 11 years in prison if he returns.
In 2010 he received a
seven-year jail term in absentia for publishing a 'false map' of the
border with Vietnam, claiming the neighbour holds Cambodian territory.
Other convictions include accusing the foreign minister of being a member of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s.
international community has urged Cambodia to allow all political
participants, including Rainsy, to compete fairly in the looming
Despite his apparently unassailable grip on power, some
experts question whether Hun Sen's strong-arm tactics could eventually
bring him down.
"How can he rule by fear and at the same time try
to keep everybody happy?" Ou Virak of the Cambodia Center for Human
Rights recently told AFP. - AFP