By Prak Chan Thul and Matthew Tostevin
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia’s government has raised the possibility that the main opposition party could be ruled out of elections if it does not replace its leader, Kem Sokha, who has been charged with treason.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has said it does not plan to replace Kem Sokha and that it fears doing so would be to fall into a trap set by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government ahead of next year’s election.
The arrest of Kem Sokha on Sunday drew Western condemnation and marked an escalation in a crackdown on critics of Hun Sen, who has ruled for 30 years and could face possibly his toughest electoral challenge from the CNRP next year.
"They have to appoint an acting president," government spokesman Phay Siphan told Reuters on Tuesday.
"If they don't comply with the law, they will not exist and have no right to political activity… It's their choice, not my choice."
Kem Sokha's daughter, Kem Monovithya, who is also a party official, said the party would not appoint a new leader.
"The ruling party can drop their divide and conquer plan now," she said.
Opposition officials accuse Hun Sen of trying to weaken or destroy the party ahead of the election after it did well in June local elections in which it nonetheless came well behind Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party.
Pro-government website Fresh News said on Tuesday that there could be more arrests linked to the treason charges against Kem Sokha, who has been accused of conspiring with the United States to undermine the Southeast Asian kingdom.
Kem Sokha only became leader in February after predecessor Sam Rainsy resigned, saying he feared the party could be banned under a new law that forbids any party having a leader who is found guilty of a crime. Sam Rainsy fled into exile to avoid a defamation conviction.
Cambodian law says a political party has 90 days to replace a president if he or she dies, resigns or is convicted of an offence.
Western countries have condemned the arrest of Kem Sokha and a crackdown on critics of Hun Sen, including independent media.
"We don't care about people outside," Phay Siphan said. "We care about our national security. We don’t belong to anyone."
Kem Sokha was formally charged with treason on Tuesday. China, a close ally of Hun Sen, has said it supports Cambodia in its steps to protect its security.
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul and Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Hugh Lawson)