The exiled leader of Cambodia’s banned opposition party would offer a pardon to strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen if he were to step down from power over the country he has ruled with an iron fist since 1985, he told RFA.

In an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service, Sam Rainsy, the acting president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), said he and co-founder and party president Kem Sokha agreed in 2013 to propose a draft law that would offer amnesty to Prime Minister Hun Sen should his rule come to an end.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had just lost 22 parliamentary seats to the CNRP in the 2013 elections when, according to Sam Rainsy, Hun Sen asked him to avoid vengeance, using the proverb: “Ants eat fish when water recedes, and fish eat ants when the water rises.”

“He wanted that law. Now he is revealing his intentions. He is afraid of his future because he has done awful things in his past. He will be prosecuted when he is out of power” Sam Rainsy told RFA on Tuesday during a visit to Washington.

Hun Sen denied last week that he had asked Sam Rainsy for any kind of pardon.

But in a speech at a youth vaccination campaign rally, Hun Sen said he intends to amend the constitution to provide amnesty for prime minister, and for the leaders of Cambodia’s Senate and National Assembly.

Although he dismissed Hun Sen’s denial, Sam Rainsy said he and others in the CNRP were holding open the door for Hun Sen to step down without punishment because they want to avoid a war with Khmer people on both sides.

“If we continue to seek revenge we will never have closure. Our suffering will continue and never end… We don’t intend to exact revenge out of Hun Sen despite our suffering. We will not cause harm to his family.. and we will guarantee his life and freedom. He can even keep some of his assets so we can live peacefully,” he said.

The proposed draft laws, according to Sam Rainsy, drew inspiration from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was part of that country’s post-apartheid political healing process.

Through the commission, victims could give testimony in public hearings, and those who had been part of the apartheid power structure could express remorse and in some cases request amnesty for their crimes.

The idea came after Hun Sen asked him during a meeting not to take revenge and vowed to protect himself.

“If we have the law, he will be willing to step down. He is getting older,” Sam Rainsy said of the 69-year-old prime minister.

“It is almost time for him and he has realized this himself. He understands that he cannot continue to go forward. He is preparing [an exit] so if we have the law, he will feel at ease,” Sam Rainsy said.

“Without the law he will continue to be afraid… Hun Sen is trying to have his son replace him after he can no longer continue. That shows he is afraid because he does not trust anyone besides his family, because even within his own party there are people who do not like Hun Sen,” he said.

He said Hun Sen’s rivals from his own party are just waiting for the opportunity to speak their mind, which would be impossible if Hun Sun’s son Hun Manet were to succeed his father.

Sam Rainsy also said he and his party would consider allowing Hun Manet, commander of the Royal Cambodian Army since 2018, to remain in control of the military to protect his father, but this would require assurances from the Hun family.

“Hun Manet can stay in the government and control the military, but he cannot use it to stage a coup. This is how we can peacefully coexist. We must think about it.”

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. Scores of supporters of the group have since been incarcerated, awaiting a tortuous legal process made slower by coronavirus restrictions.

The move came amid a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the country’s political opposition, independent media, and NGOs that drew U.S. sanctions and the suspension of trade privileges with the European Union.

Radio Free Asia –Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036Radio Free Europe–Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

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