PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia's parliament will consider legislation to allow politicians banned from political activity to have the ban lifted, a measure that long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen's government is touting as a step "to strengthen democracy and political space."
The move, announced late Monday by the assembly's secretariat, ostensibly holds out an olive branch to the 118 top members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party banned from political activity for five years. Their party was dissolved by court order last year in what was seen as a tactic to ensure a victory by Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party in this past July's general election.
Under the proposed legislation, the ban could be lifted by Cambodia's constitutional monarch on application by the prime minister on advice of the interior minister.
It's also an effort by the government to patch up relations with Western nations critical of the election, which they judged to be neither free nor fair. The United States and European nations imposed diplomatic sanctions and threaten economic punishments in response to what they consider a lack of democracy and limitations on human rights. In addition to shutting down the sole credible opposition party, virtually all media outlets critical of the government were forced to close.
Hun Sen, who has held power for more than three decades, has a history of cracking down hard on his foes when he is challenged, then easing up when those he finds a threat have been politically neutered. He has denied that recent pardons and releases are due to international pressure, which increased after the controversial election.
Many of the banned opposition politicians fled Cambodian in fear of arrest, and restoration of their political rights alone would appear to leave them in the political wilderness, as the Cambodian People's Party holds all 125 seats in the National Assembly. There are no guarantees that new legal actions would not be taken against them in the courts, which are generally seen as being under the government's influence.
Since the election, Hun Sen's government has made a series of gestures in an effort to burnish its reputation. These include the freeing, either on bail or as a result of pardons, of political prisoners, including the head of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, Kem Sokha, who was charged last year with treason on the basis of flimsy evidence. He is now being held under tight house arrest.
In October, Hun Sen said he had agreed to the resumption of U.S. military-led missions to search for the remains of Americans missing in action during the Vietnam War, following an appeal from two U.S. state lawmakers. The long-running program was suspended a year ago after the U.S. government stopped issuing visas to senior Cambodian Foreign Ministry officials and their families. The tit-for-tat move came amid sharply deteriorating relations between the two countries.
A statement issued Monday by the Foreign Affairs Ministry listed the legislation that could cut short political bans as one of several examples of how the government was seeking "to improve the political climate and democratic space for the citizens to exercise their legitimate rights and freedoms in the spirit of national reconciliation."
However, it mostly reiterated points previously made by the government, including claims that the legal actions against political parties were undertaken according the rule of law, and that the election was legitimate.
"We cannot be reassured that democracy is fully protected till the courts are independent and not used as a political tool," Mu Sochua, a former lawmaker and vice president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, told The Associated Press in an interview conducted over the internet. As long as the group's president, Kem Sokha, and other political prisoners, including the party's previous president, remain "wrongly charged," and the party itself is not reinstated as a legitimate political party, "the return of the 118 alone is not a guarantee that democracy is out of danger," she said.