By SOPHENG CHEANG
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A veteran Cambodian politician and his son on Jan. 16 became the first among 118 opposition members banned from politics for five years to have the restriction lifted.
Kong Korm and his son, Kong Bora, had their bans lifted when Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni signed a royal decree approving their application for restoration of political rights.
The two were among the members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party who were banned from politics when the group was dissolved by court order in November 2017 on a contrived charge of conspiring with the United States to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
The move against the opposition was seen as the government’s effort to ensure it won last July’s general election. It swept all 125 National Assembly seats.
However, the successful move to keep power — Hun Sen on Jan. 14 marked 34 years in power — raised criticism that the polls were neither free nor fair. Western nations already disturbed by Hun Sen’s authoritarian ways have imposed diplomatic sanctions and are threatening to apply economic sanctions, a move that Hun Sen has warned recently would end up hurting the opposition.
Allowing politicians to apply to have their bans lifted is part of a government effort to mollify its critics, especially in the international community. However, members of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party are split over whether to apply, with many opposing playing by Hun Sen’s rules and hoping the international community will step up pressure on Hun Sen.
The split in the opposition is also fueled by rivalries between factions loyal to the party’s two former leaders, and there is widespread belief that Hun Sen — one of the region’s wiliest political players — is encouraging the factionalism.
The 77-year-old Kong Korm and his son had been members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party but in recent months have been publicly expressing differences with their colleagues.
Speaking by telephone to The Associated Press on Jan. 16, Kong Korm said he was delighted to have his ban lifted, and would continue in politics by joining the Khmer Will Party, which was formed last year before the election by another of his sons. He described the party as representing new hope for Cambodians, espousing moderation rather than the “extremist’’ policies he attributed to the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party.
“My ban has been lifted and my past worrying that I could no longer be engaged in politics has been resolved,’’ Kong Korm said. “In short, I am delighted to be back in Cambodia’s political arena again.’’