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Cambodia’s opposition party cries foul after governor likens them to ‘social plague’

Cambodia’s opposition Candlelight Party is once again urging government officials to stop harassing its members after a provincial governor from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party compared Candlelight members recently elected to local offices to a “social plague,” sources in the country told RFA.

The complaint comes as members of the Candlelight prepare to meet with other minority parties to consider forming an alliance and to make recommendations to improve Cambodia’s elections process.

The Candlelight Party won roughly 19 percent of the country’s 11,622 open commune council seats in the June 5 election, establishing itself as the main opposition to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which took more than 80 percent of the vote.

Prior to the election, the Candlelight Party candidates reported harassment and intimidation by members of the CPP and its supporters, including government officials. Unless the government acts, the discrimination against Candlelight and other opposition party members will grow, Candlelight officials fear.

At a post-election ceremony in the western province of Pailin, provincial Gov. Ban Sreymom threatened the newly elected councilors affiliated with the Candlelight Party, saying they were a “plague we need to get rid of.”

“We don’t teach people to be rude and provoke a social toxin or plague. We don’t let them stay. They are a plague, they will be removed or be sprayed with insecticide to kill it,” Ban Sreymom said during the ceremony.

The comment will make it harder for the commune councils with representatives from both political parties to operate, the Candlelight Party’s chief for the province, Khem Monykosal, told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“We haven’t even started our jobs, but there has been a threat already. This comment shouldn’t be used and they should respect the people’s votes. The comment is a major offense to our councilors,” he said.

RFA was unable to reach the governor for comment Tuesday. Interior Minister Khieu Sopheak was also not available.

Bun Sreymom’s comments were not discriminatory, asserted the CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San.

“We empower the provincial governors to advise commune councilors, so I don’t believe they use the events to attack [the Candlelight Party],” he said.

Government officials should not use their offices to discriminate against their political rivals, Kang Savang, a monitor with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia NGO, told RFA.

He urged the Ministry of Interior to investigate the case and to punish officials if they are in breach of the law.

“Senior government officials should not use terms like that in public because it is against their duties as authorities,” he said.

Candlelight Party Vice President Thach Setha said the Ministry of Interior must issue strict measures to prevent such comments in the future. 

He hopes that the party’s newly elected commune councilors will be able to serve their constituents unhindered so that they can develop their communities.

“We want the Ministry of Interior to take tough measures and punish [CPP councilors] who don’t share responsibilities with [opposition party] councilors,” he said.

Opposition alliance

Five political parties including the Candlelight Party will meet Wednesday to discuss a possible alliance.

The four smaller parties — the Grassroots Democratic Party, the Cambodian Reform Party, the Khmer Will Party and the Kampucheanimym Party — will along with Candlelight also make recommendations to Cambodia’s government on improving the election process.

“We are advocating progress on improvement to elections to the NEC [National Election Commission], and we all have plenty of work to do on the same path,” Yang Saing Koma, founder of the Grassroots Democratic Party, told RFA. 

The ruling party is not concerned about the alliance, CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San told RFA.

“They all split from the big party,” he said, referring to the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved in 2017 by Cambodia’s Supreme Court, paving the way for Hun Sen’s CPP to win all of the seats in the National Assembly in general elections the following year.

Many of the former CNRP members who were barred from engaging in political activities as members of that party are now members of Candlelight.

“Now they want to reunite, but the party lost election to the CPP already,” Sok Ey San said, referring to the CPP’s dominance in this year’s commune elections.

Exiled political analyst Kim Sok said the parties should merge in order to compete with the CPP by creating a new political force.

“We can’t say we are united and still support different parties,” he said. “If we don’t merge there is no significant benefit.”

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