Last man standing: Cambodia opposition MPs brace for dissolution

In this picture taken on October 17, 2017, Lim Kimya, a member of the National Assembly from Cambodia National Rescue Party, speaks during an interview in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (AFP Photo/Tang Chhin Sothy)

Dozens of their fellow MPs have fled into exile and the prime minister has warned they face "hell", but a handful of Cambodian opposition politicians are standing firm ahead of a court ruling almost certain to dissolve their party for good.

Among the holdouts is Lim Kimya, 65, who continues to show up to work for the painstaking task of debating the government's 2018 budget.

But his routine belies the perilous state of his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which strongman premier Hun Sen has promised will be disbanded by the Supreme Court on Thursday.

Hun Sen, who has dominated Cambodia for more than three decades, has tightened his grip on the country after recent CNRP electoral gains shook his authority.

The court ruling could carry a five-year ban from office for Lim Kimya and more than 100 other CNRP politicians and staff -- a fatal blow to a popular movement that has campaigned tirelessly to break Hun Sen's 32-year hold on power.

With dual French-Cambodian citizenship, Lim Kimya could have easily joined the three dozen MPs who have fled abroad after the party's president was detained on treason charges in September.

Yet Lim Kimya refuses to quit.

"I will never give up politics," he told AFP from the CNRP's headquarters in Phnom Penh, where just 20 other MPs and a skeletal staff remain.

Most MPs are keeping a low profile to avoid arrest or worse in a country with a grim history of political violence.

When Lim Kimya and other MPs protested outside the remote border prison where their leader Kem Sokha has been held since his arrest, guards told them: "We'll break your head," the MP recounted.

Death knell for democracy?

The court case against CNRP, filed last month by the government, has been blasted by rights groups as Hun Sen's final attempt to eliminate his rivals ahead of 2018 polls.

The case accuses the party of conspiring with foreign forces to stage a revolution.

Like many Cambodians, Lim Kimya doesn't have any illusions about how judges will rule in a country where Hun Sen's influence seeps through all layers of government. Last week the premier bluntly told CNRP politicians to defect to his party, an offer only one MP has taken.

"We give you a ladder... If you do not climb on it, you will go to hell," Hun Sen told a crowd in the capital.

While past moves to tighten control have been alternated with spells of relative freedom -- a tactic that kept western aid taps flowing -- the latest assault on the CNRP shows no sign of abating.

Analysts say the premier has been emboldened by aid and investment from Beijing, while he has also been rattled by the CNRP's dogged rise, with the party nearly seizing office in the last 2013 national election and gaining ground in local polls this July.

Rights groups have warned that the dissolution of the CNRP could sound the death knell of Cambodia's democracy.

"Cambodia appears to be tilting into dictatorship," Phil Robertson of the US-based Human Rights Watch, said at a recent press conference.

The watchdog has called on foreign governments to target the strongman and his cronies with sanctions or "share the blame for democracy's demise under Hun Sen's autocratic rule". – AFP

Recommended stories: