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Cambodian opposition party’s signs destroyed in run-up to local election

Members of Cambodia’s largest opposition party said on Tuesday their campaign signs for June 5 elections in southern Siem Reap province were vandalized and destroyed in the latest of a pattern of harassment.

Candlelight Party officials have complained for weeks about incidents of harassment by local officials representing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

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.

Sock Kissing, the chief of the Candlelight Party’s northwestern province, told RFA’s Khmer Service that signs his party hung in public places were deliberately destroyed, which he said shows the bias held by local officials toward the CPP.

“The Candlelight Party urges the authorities to provide equal protection toward the party’s candidates, supporters and party property,” he said.

The Candlelight Party has risen from the ashes of the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, whose strong showing in previous communal elections in 2017 prompted Hun Sen have the party dissolved, paving the way for his CPP to win all 125 parliamentary seats in 2018.

With its rise has come what Candlelight officials say are made-up accusations that the party has used fake names for candidates and has put forward candidates in violation of Cambodian election laws.

Several Candlelight Party activists have been jailed on allegations of submitting false documents to run in the communal elections, and many others say they have been harassed or attacked by people loyal to the CPP.

Sock Kissing said that although authorities are monitoring the campaign trail in Siem Reap, they are watching his party in hopes of catching its candidates slip up, rather than ensuring a free and fair election. He intends to file a complaint with the National Election Commission.

The Provincial Election Committee’s secretariat chief, Men Vann Sam, told RFA that he had worked with local officials to resolve all complaints.

“We are investigating the incidents with local authorities. We are working for all parties, not only the Candlelight Party,” he said.

Norn Thera, a Candlelight candidate in Siem Reap, told RFA that he also submitted complaints about political harassment, which makes it hard to conduct a campaign fairly.

“I am very sad over the incidents. I can’t accept it. Many party’s banners were destroyed in public spaces,” he said.

Destruction of any political party’s property is a crime that affects the political rights of the Cambodians, Sam Kuntheamy, director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, told RFA.

Voting holiday for textile workers

The labor ministry announced Tuesday it will give garment factory workers three days paid leave from June 4-6 to vote.

Yang Sophoan, director of the Cambodia Alliance of Trade Unions, told RFA that the move is a possible indication of CPP’s confidence in its position heading into the election.

“It shows that the CPP thinks it has a huge advantage in the election,” she said.

Before the pandemic, Cambodia’s garment sector employed about 1 million workers and accounted for 45 percent of Cambodia’s exports.

The CPP, the only party large enough to field candidates nationwide, is expected to win a landslide victory, enjoying the power of incumbency and patronage in what Hun Sun has effectively turned into a one-party state at the national level.

The government should allow time for workers from remote areas of the country to travel back home to vote, Ath Thun, president of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, told RFA.

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said the government was not considering extending the voter leave beyond three days. Given the country’s modern infrastructure, he said workers should not need more than 10 hours of travel.

The government is not covering transportation expenses, Phay Siphan said. The Ministry of Labor, however, urged factories to pay the workers before they leave to vote, or at least loan them money for travel expenses.

Meanwhile, NGOs monitoring the campaign say they have reported no serious incidents so far.

Kang Savang, a monitor with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said parties have continued to conduct their campaigns, including by marching and distributing leaflets. 

“There is no serious irregularity or threat during this election campaign,” he said.

The National Election Commission issued a statement Tuesday that said the campaigns were proceeding normally.

 “In general, the election campaign in the fourth day went smoothly with security, safety and order, without violence or intimidation,” it said.

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