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FILE PHOTO: Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy delivers a speech to members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) at a hotel in metro Manila, Philippines June 29, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen will be driven from power like President Mugabe in Zimbabwe, veteran opposition chief Sam Rainsy told Reuters on Thursday, adding that Western states should impose targeted sanctions after his party was dissolved.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was banned at the government's request last week, deepening Hun Sen's fight with Western donors who accuse him of demolishing democracy in the country he has ruled for over 32 years.
Rainsy resigned in February from the party, saying he feared it would be banned if he did not. Defamation convictions that he calls politically motivated drove him to flee Cambodia for France in 2015.
"Cambodia is at a tipping point. The people are fed up with Hun Sen and what is happening in Zimbabwe is inspiring," Rainsy told Reuters in an interview.
"Mugabe has fallen and it will soon be the turn of Hun Sen, who has become unacceptably anachronistic."
Mugabe, who had led Zimbabwe from independence in 1980, stepped down on Tuesday after the army seized power and the ruling party turned against him.
Hun Sen's government called for the CNRP ban after arresting its leader Kem Sokha on Sept. 3. It charged him with treason for an alleged plot to take over the Southeast Asian country with the help of the United States.
His opponents say the charges were intended to eliminate Kem Sokha from next year's election so the strongman, who is currently the world's longest serving prime minister, can extend his rule.
Rainsy, who announced his return to politics on Nov. 15, described the party ban as "just on paper".
He said the opposition needed to demonstrate that it continued to garner "strong support" after winning some 3 million votes in the 2013 elections, and push Cambodia's main western donors to shy away from the Phnom Penh government.
"What is important is to show Hun Sen that what he did was unacceptable. The world is not going to do business as usual with this government ... and needs to tell him it would never recognise a government that came out of these elections," he said.
According to a recording leaked online on Thursday, Hun Sen has warned his party it could still lose the vote even after the CNRP was banned, and he demanded that it improve its image.
Western countries have condemned the government's crackdown on the opposition, civil rights groups and independent media and have called for the release of Kem Sokha to allow credible elections.
Washington has said it is cutting planned aid for holding elections and will take further steps.
France, which ruled the country for almost a century before its 1953 independence, on Thursday said the government needed to abide by a democratic process.
Hun Sen, a former commander in the ultra-leftist Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot which is blamed for the deaths of around two million people in the 1970s, has brushed off Western criticism, and warned that trade sanctions will hurt the people first.
Rainsy said the U.S. and European Union should initially withdraw all assistance for the elections and impose targeted sanctions ranging from visa bans to asset freezes.
He stopped short of calling for economic sanctions, saying that this could be used further down the line.
"We need personal sanctions that target individuals so that it won't hurt the people, but (hurt) the leaders who have hidden their ill-amassed fortunes abroad. They react when their personal interests are hurt," he said.
When asked about Hun Sen increasingly turning to China, Cambodia's biggest donor, Rainsy said he believed the relationship would eventually unravel.
"China looks beyond Hun Sen. No government is stupid enough to continue to bet on him. What is happening in Cambodia now is reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge era. Pol Pot was isolated from the world and relied on China, but ... when it didn't need him it threw him out."
(Reporting by John Irish; editing by Andrew Roche)