The Cambodia Daily
By Phorn Bopha and Colin Meyn - July 15, 2013
In the face of widespread criticism that the July 28 national ballot
will fail to meet basic standards for democratic elections, Foreign
Minister Hor Namhong said on Saturday that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s
decision to pardon opposition leader Sam Rainsy would guarantee a fair
But reacting to the pardon, the U.S. Embassy and local election
monitors said Mr. Rainsy’s return would not by itself ensure fair
elections due to ongoing concerns such as flaws to the national voter
list and equal access to the media.
Analysts also said the decision by Mr. Hun Sen to acquit Mr. Rainsy
of his crimes only served to expose the prime minister’s vast authority
over the judiciary and the political nature of the opposition leader’s
convictions in the first place.
Following a meeting at the Foreign Affairs Ministry with U.S. Embassy
Charge d’Affaires Jeff Daigle, Mr. Namhong said that Mr. Hun Sen’s
request to pardon the president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party
(CNRP) was not influenced by calls from foreign donors for his return.
“The CPP’s policy—the prime minister’s policy—typically strives to
create unity and reconciliation, now there is a pardon for His
Excellency Sam Rainsy in order to create free and fair elections and
[strengthen] democracy,” Mr. Namhong said.
“[T]his is not the first time that the prime minister has asked the king to pardon Sam Rainsy,” he added.
Mr. Rainsy was last granted a royal pardon at the behest of Mr. Hun
Sen in 2006, after he spent more than a year outside the country in
order to avoid an 18-month prison sentence on a conviction of defaming
Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who he said accepted bribes to join a
coalition government with the CPP, and Mr. Hun Sen, who he accused of
being behind the 1997 grenade attacks that killed about a dozen people
at an opposition rally.
But whereas Mr. Rainsy wrote a public letter of apology to Mr. Hun
Sen prior to the last time he was pardoned, the opposition leader made
no such gesture this time.
“It seems that there was no concession on the part of Sam Rainsy,”
said independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay. “I think that for the
opposition and for Sam Rainsy himself, they should feel like this is a
triumph. And it would be legitimate for Sam Rainsy to crow a bit and say
that he is indomitable,” he added.
Mr. Rainsy’s July 6 declaration—posted in a video on his Facebook
page—that he would return to Cambodia prior to elections regardless of
his criminal status forced Mr. Hun Sen to decide between granting Mr.
Rainsy amnesty or making him a cause celebre, said Hang Puthea,
executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and
Fair Elections in Cambodia.
“If Sam Rainsy came back and if the government put Sam Rainsy in
jail, a rally would move within the [CNRP] campaign to support the
freedom of Sam Rainsy and this movement could get bigger and bigger. So
the government had to decide, what should they do?” Mr. Puthea said,
noting that the timing of Mr. Rainsy’s announcement put Mr. Hen Sen in a
particularly tight bind.
“We can see the result comes from a game of politics. The end of the
game is that Sam Rainsy can come back to Cambodia this time,” he added.
Regardless of why Mr. Hun Sen—with King Sihamoni’s blessing—has
cleared the way for Mr. Rainsy’s return, the decision by the prime
minister has only exposed how subservient the court system has become to
the government, according to Thun Saray, chairman of the board of
directors for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia
“You see, we do not have independence of courts from the beginning
[of democracy in 1993] until now, and we have solved political conflicts
this way in the past,” he said. “We cannot solve problems of political
conflict by respecting the decision of courts because the court is not
independent enough to make a fair decision for the parties involved.”
Prior to being pardoned on Friday, Mr. Rainsy faced at least 11 years
in prison on a raft of charges including destruction of public property
for uprooting demarcation posts along the Vietnamese border,
disinformation for posting maps online to support claims that Vietnam is
encroaching on Cambodian territory and defamation of Mr. Namhong over
accusations that he ran a Khmer Rouge prison camp.
Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodia Defenders Project, a legal aid
NGO, concurred that the granting of a royal pardon represented the only
possible solution to politically motivated decisions.
“The problem [with finding a solution through the courts] is that the
original case [against Mr. Rainsy] was political…. It is because of
political involvement that the public has doubts about the independence
of the judiciary,” he said.
Koul Panha, the executive director of Comfrel, said that allowing the
opposition leader to return to the country was only a first step toward
the more important decision to allow him to compete as a candidate in
the national election.
“It is very important to allow him [Mr. Rainsy] to contest elections
as a candidate in order to increase the fairness of competition,” he
said, adding that regardless of Mr. Rainsy’s participation, a litany of
obstacles continued to stifle the credibility of the July 28 ballot,
which Comfrel has said will be the least fair in 20 years.
“A lot still needs to be improved including equal access to media,
misuse of state resources, the [National Election Committee’s]
performance and composition, voter lists and neutrality of armed forces
in campaigning,” he said.
On Friday, the U.S. State Department, which has made several efforts
to move Mr. Hun Sen’s administration toward democratic reform, applauded
the pardon of Mr. Rainsy but encouraged further improvements to the
“While his [Mr. Rainsy’s] safe return will be a significant step in
the right direction, we encourage the Cambodian Government to continue
implementing recommendations by the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human
Rights in Cambodia aimed at free and fair elections,” U.S. State
Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a daily briefing in Washington.