PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party on Thursday, leaving authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen clear to extend over three decades in power in a general election next year.
The government had asked the court to dissolve the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was accused of plotting to take power with help from the United States after the arrest of party leader Kem Sokha on Sept. 3.
The court ruling also ordered a five-year political ban for 118 members of the opposition party. It had threatened a major election challenge to Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who is the world’s longest serving prime minister.
In a televised address, Hun Sen told Cambodians the election would go ahead “as normal” and called on CNRP members who had not been banned to defect to his party.
The CNRP rejected the accusations against it as politically motivated. It did not send lawyers for the court ruling.
“It shows that Hun Sen will never stop if no one is stopping him,” said Kem Monovithya, the daughter of Kem Sokha and also a party official. “The verdict is expected. It’s time for sanctions from the international community.”
Western donors, who sponsored elections overseen by the United Nations in 1993 in the hope of founding an enduring democracy, had called for Kem Sokha’s release.
But they have shown no appetite for sanctions against Cambodia’s government, which is now closely allied to China. The United States and European Union missions in Cambodia declined immediate comment on the court ruling.
Despite ramping up anti-U.S. rhetoric and linking the United States to the alleged plot against him, Hun Sen lauded U.S. President Donald Trump at a regional summit at the weekend and said he welcomed his policy of non-interference.
Dozens of police manned barriers outside the gold ornamented court in the centre of Phnom Penh.
There was no sign of protests.
Few people on the streets wanted to talk about the ruling, the latest chapter in decades of manoeuvring that have kept Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in power across all levels in the country of 16 million.
“People are scared to talk amongst themselves,” said Seang Menly, 39, a driver of one of the rickety tuk-tuks that ply the streets of Phnom Penh. “In my neighbourhood, people who used to give money and food to the CNRP no longer dare to.”
Hun Sen and his defenders say only he can ensure peace.
During his rule since 1985, Cambodia has been transformed from a failed state to a lower middle-income country with growth of about 7 percent a year. Life expectancy has risen from 50 to 70.
“The Supreme Court’s decision today is not to end democracy but to deter extremists in order to protect the people and the nation from destruction,” said Huy Vannak, undersecretary of state at the interior ministry.
Rights groups condemned the decision by the court, which is headed by a judge who is a member of the ruling party’s permanent committee.
They said it left Cambodia as a de facto one-party state and rendered next year’s election meaningless.
“The misuse of the courts to dissolve the CNRP is one of the gravest threats to human rights and representative democracy modern Cambodia has seen,” said Kingsley Abbot of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists.
More than half the CNRP’s members of parliament had already fled Cambodia, fearing detention in a crackdown on Hun Sen’s critics, civil rights groups and independent media that began last year.
“We don’t know who is next,” an editor at the Voice of Democracy radio station in Phnom Penh said. It was taken off the air in August, but has continued broadcasting through Facebook.
The CNRP’s parliamentary seats will be redistributed to other government-aligned parties after its dissolution.
The party will also lose control of the councils that it won in local elections in June, when its strong showing in winning more than 40 percent of them made clear the threat it posed to the ruling party next year.
Hun Sen appealed to CNRP members to join the ruling party, saying: “You cannot even save your party. How will you save yourself?”
Evidence presented against the party included a video from 2013 in which Kem Sokha said he had help from unidentified Americans to win power. He said he was talking about a democratic election strategy, not a coup.
Editing by Matthew Tostevin, Robert Birsel