Cambodia’s Council of Ministers has approved a controversial draft law on a constitutional amendment to ban anyone with dual citizenship from holding top political offices, in an apparent move by strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen to prevent a key opposition leader from gaining office, analysts said.

Approved on Oct. 8, the draft legislation calls for a charter change preventing Cambodians with dual citizenship from becoming prime minister or president of the National Assembly, Senate, or Constitutional Council.

The move appears directed at preventing Sam Rainsy, acting president of the dissolved opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), who holds both Cambodian and French citizenship, from taking any future government leadership roles should he try to possibly participate in the country’s next general election in 2023.

Sam Rainsy, 72, lives in exile in France and was sentenced in absentia in March to 25 years on a charge of attempting to overthrow the government.

A statement issued by the Council of Ministers following the approval of the draft law said that the Senate, National Assembly, and Constitutional Council are top institutions responsible for making life-or-death decisions on behalf of the country to ensure Cambodia’s independence, integrity, and territorial sovereignty and to avoid foreign interference.

“To ensure loyalty for the country, the people at all time, and to avoid foreign interference, the constitutional amendment … will limit the President of the National Assembly, Senate, Constitutional Council and the Prime Minister to have only one citizenship,” the statement said.

The statement also quoted Hun Sen during the meeting, saying that the constitutional amendment “is for the long-term benefit for the country to avoid foreign inference and to show loyalty to the country.”

The draft law must be submitted first to the National Assembly, and then to the Senate and on to King Norodom Sihamoni before it becomes law. The draft law will likely be approved because the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) controls the National Assembly and the Senate.

Cambodia political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the amendment amounts to a personal vendetta by Hun Sen against Sam Rainsy and will not serve the country’s interests.

“The amendment is useless,” he told RFA. “This is just a reaction to Sam Rainsy to prevent him from becoming the next prime minister.”

Because the opposition leader has been sentenced in absentia to many years in prison, he cannot become prime minister unless he first serves his prison terms, added Lao Mong Hay.

He also noted that former CNRP president Kem Sokha, who does not have dual citizenship and has remained loyal to Cambodia, remains accused of conspiring with a foreign country.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, two months after arresting its president, Kem Sokha, over an alleged plot to overthrow the government that CPP officials claimed was backed by the United States.

The move came amid a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the country’s political opposition, independent media, and NGOs, and allowed the CPP to win every parliamentary seat in 2018 elections, drawing international criticism, U.S. sanctions, and the suspension of trade privileges with the European Union.

Thailand-based political analyst Seng Sary said he supports the amendment, but added that it should take effect after the 2023 elections so that political parties other than the CPP have a chance to be represented in the National Assembly, to avoid criticism that Cambodia has become less democratic with one dominant party.

“It should be a long-term benefit for Cambodia, but it should be done after the 2023 elections when we have more parties and people can fully understand [the amendment],” he said.

Sam Rainsy responded to the move, posting on his Facebook page on Oct. 8 that the amendment was not applicable to him and instead suggested that the government consider making two laws — one requiring the prime minister and other top officials to retire at the age of 70 and another prohibiting the prime minister from holding power for more than two five-year terms.

Hun Sen, 69, has been Cambodia’s longest-serving prime minister and is serving his sixth term in the position under de facto one-party rule.

Nevertheless, Sam Rainsy said he would give up his French citizenship before taking any leadership positions in Cambodia that forbade dual citizenship.

On Thursday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged Sam Rainsy, his deputies Mu Sochua and Eng Chhai Eang, and other CNRP officials with conspiracy and incitement following a statement that Sam Rainsy posted on Facebook urging Cambodian citizens and the military to push for an end to Hun Sen’s rule.

In early August, former CNRP officials formed new parties to try to restore democracy to Cambodia, after asking Hun Sen to reinstate their political rights by dropping an order banning them from politics for five years that accompanied the court-ordered dissolution of the party.

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