Sam Rainsy steps down to save party

Sam Rainsy steps down to save party

PHNOM PENH: The exiled head of Cambodia's opposition party has announced his resignation after Prime Minister Hun Sen announced plans for a law that could lead to the party's dissolution.

Sam Rainsy announced his resignation Saturday in a letter to his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Hun Sen earlier this month vowed to amend the laws on political parties to keep convicts from holding leadership positions, among other rules.

Sam Rainsy is in self-imposed exile to avoid a prison sentence for criminal defamation. He's been the target of several lawsuits by Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party.

Just this past Thursday, a Cambodian appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that found Sam Rainsy guilty of defamation for alleging that a senior government official sought to inflate Hun Sen's online popularity by buying "likes" for his Facebook page.

The opposition says the lawsuits are without merit, and just a legal ploy to try to cripple them. Kem Sokha, the party's deputy chief and acting head, has faced similar legal attacks but has exchanged conciliatory words and gestures with Hun Sen in recent months. Hun Sen has a history of using a carrot-and-stick approach to successfully divide his opponents.

Cambodia will hold local elections in June. Sam Rainsy is the opposition's most popular figure, and virtually embodies the opposition in challenging Hun Sen for more than two decades.

"In all circumstances I continue to cherish and to uphold the CNRP's ideals in my heart," Sam Rainsy said in a posting on his Facebook page.

A general election is scheduled for 2018.

Hun Sen's grip on power seemed shaken in the 2013 general election, when the CNRP mounted a strong challenge, winning 55 seats in the National Assembly and leaving Hun Sen's party with 68.

The opposition said it had been cheated and staged a boycott of Parliament. Seeking to shore up his legitimacy, Hun Sen reached a political truce with the opposition in 2014, making some minor concessions over electoral and parliamentary procedures.

But relations between the government and the opposition deteriorated in 2015 after the opposition tried to exploit a volatile issue by accusing neighbouring Vietnam, with which Hun Sen's government maintains good relations, of land encroachment. The move proved politically popular, and the government reacted by stepping up intimidation of the opposition in the courts.

The CNRP ended a new six-month boycott of Parliament in November last year, saying it wanted to ensure that the national budget for 2017 was debated properly.

It had stopped attending parliamentary sessions in protest after some of its members were stripped of their parliamentary immunity and confronted with lawsuits.

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