PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A veteran member of Cambodia's dissolved opposition party broke ranks with his colleagues on Wednesday and became the first to apply for a government-offered lifting of a ban on engaging in political activity.
Kong Korm was one of 118 members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party who were banned from politics for five years when the group was dissolved by court order in November 2017 on a contrived charge of conspiring with the United States to overthrow the government. Cambodia's courts are widely considered to be under the influence of long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen's government.
All the opposition party's lawmakers lost their elective positions, and the action eliminated any real challenge to the ruling Cambodian People's Party in last year's general election, in which it captured all 125 National Assembly seats.
Kong Korm's son, Kong Bora, later Wednesday also applied for a lifting of his ban. The applications need to be approved by the Interior Ministry and then be forwarded to King Norodom Sihamoni for his pro forma approval.
The applications come during a feud between two factions of the former opposition party loyal to its two former leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha. Sam Rainsy has been in self-imposed exile for more than three years over a defamation conviction seen as politically motivated, while Kem Sokha has been in prison awaiting trial since late 2017 on the same treason accusation that led to their party's dissolution.
The two men in 2012 merged earlier parties they had headed but remain rivals, as well as targets of divide-and-conquer tactics that Hun Sen has successfully applied against other opponents.
Sam Rainsy and his supporters oppose applying for a lifting of the bans.
Kong Korm, 77, and his son are aligned with the Kem Sokha faction. Kong Korm served for a short period as foreign minister under a Hun Sen-led communist regime in the 1980s before joining Sam Rainsy's first party, the Khmer Nation Party, when it was founded in 1995. In recent months, however, he has been sharply critical of his former colleague.
Amending Cambodian law to allow the reinstatement of politicians was part of a low-key charm offensive to improve relations with Western nations that accuse Hun Sen's government of suppressing human and democratic rights. The U.S. and Germany have already instituted some diplomatic sanctions against Cambodia, and Washington and the European Union have threatened to extend economic ones as well. The main point of contention has been last July's general election, which critics charge was neither free nor fair because of the lack of credible opposition.
The government set several conditions for restoring political rights that some opposition politicians have already rejected.
Hun Sen, at a meeting last month with garment workers, said the ban would be rescinded only for those politicians who had honored it, while those who violated it could face prison terms.
Many of the banned opposition politicians fled Cambodia in fear of arrest, and restoration of their political rights alone would appear to leave them in the political wilderness. There are no guarantees that new legal actions would not be taken against them in the courts.