By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - Cambodians must show Prime Minister Hun Sen that his time is up by boycotting "fake" elections this month, and Western powers need to pressure him with targeted sanctions, exiled former opposition leader Sam Rainsy said on Thursday.
After two close elections in 2013 and 2017, Hun Sen is cracking down on his critics, prompting many rights groups and the main opposition to question the legitimacy of the July vote.
Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 33 years, is widely expected to win after the Supreme Court dissolved Rainsy's main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) last year and imprisoned its chief for alleged treason, leaving no significant competitor for his Cambodian People's Party.
"Hun Sen is very afraid. He is ready to do anything to cling to power so he doesn't hesitate to suppress all kinds of rights for the Cambodian people," Rainsy told Reuters at his home in Paris. "An election without an opposition is meaningless."
Hun Sen and smaller parties have launched their campaigns. But there has been no sign of the CNRP, many of whose leaders have fled the country over the past year fearing the government crackdown.
Rainsy went into exile in France in 2015 due to defamation convictions that he calls politically motivated, and quit the CNRP in February 2017 in a failed attempt to prevent it being banned. However, he returned to politics in November.
LOW TURNOUT KEY
He said that it was crucial that the turnout on July 29 be low despite the opposition winning three million votes in 2013, and he urged Cambodia's main western donors to shy away from the Phnom Penh government.
"I urge the people to not go to vote and boycott this fake election," he said.
Western countries and the United Nations have expressed concern the vote might not be free or fair. The European Union and United States have threatened Cambodia with economic sanctions, accusing Hun Sen of slowly eroding democracy.
Hun Sen was once a commander in the Khmer Rouge which is blamed for the deaths of around two million Cambodians in the 1970s, although he later joined a rebel army which overthrew the group along with Vietnamese forces.
He has brushed off Western criticism, and warned that sanctions will hurt the people first.
"The Hun Sen government will face international sanctions and they will not be able to contract loans because their economy is in virtual bankruptcy," Rainsy said. "You need legitimacy and once he loses that, nobody would accept to lend more money to such a government."
Rainsy said the United States and EU would adopt sanctions as a last resort and should initially impose visa bans and asset freezes on individuals.
Asked about Hun Sen turning to China, Cambodia's biggest donor, he noted that Beijing alone had supported the Khmer Rouge when it ruled the country. "The situation is very similar because of his (Hun Sen's) brutal crackdown," Rainsy said.
(Reporting by John Irish; editing by David Stamp)