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Attackers in Cambodia topple motorbike, injure local election opposition candidate

Two attackers on Thursday injured an opposition candidate for a local council in Cambodia’s upcoming commune elections, an incident she and members of her party said is another example of intimidation and harassment that they have faced in the run-up to the June 5 vote.

Sorn Chanthorn is running for a seat on the Tra Paing Prasat Commune council in the northwestern province of Oddar Meanchey, representing the opposition Candlelight Party. While she was driving to a campaign function, she said the attackers kicked her motorbike, causing her to crash. She believes the attackers wanted her to withdraw her candidacy.

“I think it was a politically motivated case because I never had any problems like this in the past,” she said, adding that she would not file a complaint because she has no confidence that the police will help her.

Tra Paing Prasat district Police Chief Ouch Mao said he hasn’t received any information about the incident. Nevertheless, he said that he doesn’t believe the attack was politically motivated.

He said it was sad to hear that Sorn Chanthorn doesn’t have confidence in his department. “So far, I resolved complaints without any political discrimination,” he said.

Candlelight Party officials have complained for weeks about incidents of violence and bullying by local officials representing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Election monitors have also been harassed, causing several to resign, they said.

“The authorities don’t have any measures to prevent intimidation,” Thatch Setha, one of the Candlelight Party’s two vice presidents, told RFA’s Khmer Service Thursday.

“They destroy our party’s signs and assault our supporters,” he said, adding that authorities do nothing to stop it.

Every five years, voters in the nation of 16 million people elect councils to represent rural precincts know as communes and urban districts called sangkat. This year some 86,000 candidates from 17 political parties are competing for 11,622 seats in 1,652 precincts nationwide.

While the councils hold relatively little power, the June 5 election will test the dominance of the CPP and the limits of political freedom for opponents five years into Hun Sen’s crackdown on civil society, media and the internet.

CPP spokesman Sok Ey San dismissed the Candlelight Party’s complaints as exaggerations designed to muddy the election environment. He urged it to file complaints with the National Election Committee (NEC), set up to be an independent organization, but that has in the past been criticized for corruption and close ties to the CPP.

“It is merely allegation,” Sok Ey San said. “No one dares to threaten [the Candlelight Party].”

Kang Savang, an election monitor with the independent Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia NGO, told RFA he has not received any definitive reports of political intimidation, but he urged victims to report election violations to the NEC.

“The victims should, however, not simply make verbal complaints. They should make notes and file complaints if it is important,” he said.  

Party violations

Cambodia’s Minister of Interior Sar Kheng on Wednesday said the Candlelight Party violated its statute by appointing Son Chhay as a vice president earlier in the year. Son Chhay was banned from politics for his affiliation with the opposition Cambodia National People’s Party, which was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in 2017, a move that allowed Hun Sen’s CPP to win all 125 parliamentary seats the following year.

Son Chhay, who requested amnesty and joined the Candlelight Party in March, said he will work to clear up any of the ministry’s concerns.

“It is a clerical issue,” he said. “I will prepare my biography and send it to the ministry.”

Meanwhile, an appeals court rejected the bail request for Seam Pluk, the founder of a smaller opposition party called the Cambodia National Heart Party, citing concerns over flight risk.

Authorities arrested Seam Pluk in late April on charges of forging documents for his party to compete in the local elections. Seam Pluk was on the run for about a week before his arrest.

Am Sam Ath of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights said the decision gives the country’s political system a bad look.

“He should have been released on bail because the international community is monitoring the election, especially our political environment,” said Am Sam Ath.

Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee President Ros Sotha said Seam Pluk’s arrest violated election laws. He said that Seam Pluk did not provoke any social unrest.

“[The government] should have asked him to make corrections and shouldn’t have arrested him. It is a violation his political rights. It is a concern,” he said.

Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.