As vote nears, Cambodia opposition urges sanction threat

Shaun Tandon
Cambodia's opposition leader Sam Rainsy poses for a portrait on May 9, 2013 during a visit to Washington, DC. Rainsy is calling on the United States to impose sanctions against strongman Hun Sen if upcoming elections are unfair, saying that Myanmar showed how foreign pressure can work

Cambodia's opposition leader is calling on the United States to impose sanctions against strongman Hun Sen if upcoming elections are unfair, saying that Myanmar showed how foreign pressure can work.

Cambodia holds elections on July 28, but Hun Sen has led the country since 1985 and his main challenger, Sam Rainsy, is barred from running due to a string of convictions that the opposition says are politically motivated.

Rainsy, who lives in exile in France to avoid prison, said on a visit to Washington that he was urging the United States and European powers to seek targeted sanctions against Hun Sen to delegitimize him if the vote is rigged.

"There must be a clear warning to the Hun Sen regime that there will not be business as usual following fake elections," Rainsy told AFP in an interview Thursday, saying he was giving the same message to US policymakers.

"If Hun Sen pretends to win in a boxing match in which he boxes alone, his victory would be meaningless," Rainsy said.

Rainsy said that the main retaliation should be a visa ban on top officials and that he opposed sanctions that would hurt ordinary Cambodians.

"Hun Sen craves legitimacy, he craves being able to travel (along with) his family and cronies," he said. "The very process of being banned would make Hun Sen think twice."

Rainsy said Cambodia has become the "new pariah of Southeast Asia" at a time when Myanmar, also known as Burma, is pursing democratic reforms after decades under military rule and being rewarded with an end to most Western sanctions.

"Burma has shown democratic progress and Cambodia is going the opposite way. So the sanctions that have been applied to Burma should be put on Cambodia if no democratic reform and election reform are implemented," he said.

Rainsy, who recently visited Myanmar to meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, said that Cambodia would be even more responsive to pressure due to Phnom Penh's heavily reliance on international assistance.

Myanmar was isolated for decades and many experts believe it undertook reforms in part to reduce its heavy reliance on China -- which also has a close relationship with Cambodia.

Hun Sen recently said he will step down as prime minister when he turns 74 -- after previously saying he would serve until 90. The idiosyncratic leader is 60 but officially lists his age as 62 which he said was the result of a typing error.

Hun Sen has warned that Cambodia risks a return to war if the opposition wins due to Rainsy's vow to prosecute members of his government for alleged roles in the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

The United States has criticized the exclusion of Rainsy from the election and said it is urging Cambodia to take steps for a free vote.

"The exclusion of one of the leading opposition leaders calls into question the legitimacy of the democratic process in Cambodia," a State Department official said.

Rainsy, who said he met in Washington with officials at the White House, State Department and Congress, called on the United States not to send observers to the election for fear of legitimizing a "farce."

The opposition leader also called for reforms of the National Election Committee which he accuses of doing the bidding of Hun Sen.

The French-educated Rainsy has lived in exile since 2009. He faces 11 years in jail if he returns over charges that included publishing a "false map" that showed Vietnam controlling Cambodian territory.