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Cambodian opposition official hospitalized after motorbike attack

A group of 10 people on motorbikes on Sunday attacked an official of Cambodia’s main opposition Candlelight Party, causing a severe head injury that required hospitalization, the official told RFA.

Nol Pongthearith was on his way to a meeting and on his own motorbike in front of the Candlelight Party office at Por Senchey district in the capital Phnom Penh when he was allegedly attacked by 10 people on four motorcycles. They shouted death threats and struck him, including on the back of his head, with an iron bar.

He said he was bruised and bloodied all over his body and required 12 stitches.

On Monday, Nol Pongthearith told RFA’s Khmer Service that he was forced to leave the hospital prematurely to continue his treatment at home to ensure his safety. He remains in pain and his wounds require further treatment.

“I am concerned for my life because the assailants shouted that [they] wanted me dead. This is not normal,” he said, adding that he believes that he was targeted because he is a member of the Candlelight Party.

Candlelight Party officials have complained for several months about incidents of violence and bullying by local officials representing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), especially in the run up to the June 5 local communal elections. The Candlelight Party ended up winning about one-fifth of the country’s contested commune council seats.

“These assaults will continue. Today it happened to me, tomorrow it will happen to other members,” Nol Pongthearith said. “I demand that the government … arrest the perpetrators who caused these injuries to me as well as the other Candlelight Party activists and members, and that they are tried before the law.”

The Candlelight Party condemned the attack in a statement it released on Sunday and called on authorities to open an independent investigation to find the people responsible.

Police have received Nol Pongthearith’s complaint and require his cooperation to investigate, Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesman San Sok Seiha told RFA.

San Sok Seiha however urged the victim and journalists not to connect his assault with politics or similar incidents in the past before an investigation is completed.

“Don’t just say this or that, because every assessment released by the police needs to be accompanied with clear evidence,” he said.

Candlelight Party Vice President Thach Setha told RFA the violence against his activists undermine the credibility of Cambodian elections.  

He said that if the authorities do not want to see criticism or accusations that the incidents are related to politics, the authorities must seek justice for all victims by allowing an independent investigation.

“In the past, political activists and civil society have never seen the authorities arrest the perpetrators and punish them, that is why we are in doubt,” he said. 

The government wants to protect its own reputation or considers all cases as non-political. 

“Please catch the perpetrators, and [those who ordered the attack] and bring them to justice,” said Thach Setha.

Civil society groups are very concerned about the recurrence of violence against political activists, Am Sam Ath, director general of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, told RFA. 

He said that if the police do not prevent these kinds of incidents, they will invite criticism of Cambodia’s political system at home and abroad.

“The authorities need to protect the security of the people if there is a crime against an individual. It must be investigated to find the perpetrator and bring justice to victims and eradicate the culture of impunity,” Am Sam Ath said.

According to RFA statistics, since 2019, around 40 social and political activists have been victims of the brutal assaults by unidentified assailants, causing serious injuries, permanent disability and even death. 

The authorities were unable to identify the perpetrators in almost all cases.

Many of the incidents were similar, involving helmeted attackers chasing their target on motorbikes, beating them or throwing stones at their homes.

Sunday’s incident was the second time Nol Pongthearith was attacked — he was also assaulted in 2019, when he was a member of the banned-opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. 

Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Eugene Whong.