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Cambodia’s small but growing opposition party threatens to boycott upcoming elections

Cambodia’s opposition Candlelight Party, whose popularity has been steadily increasing, is threatening to boycott local elections on June 5 if its activists and members continue to be harassed by officials from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Some political observers believe the Candlelight Party poses the greatest challenge to the CPP in the June commune votes. But Candlelight Vice President Thach Setha said local officials continue to hound candidates from his party without any effort from the Cambodian government to stop the abuse.

Thach Setha told RFA on Tuesday that he is considering petitioning the European Union and foreign embassies in Cambodia to intervene to try to stop the government’s intimidation of his party.

“If the problem has not been resolved, the party will boycott the election,” he said.

The Candlelight Party, formerly known as the Sam Rainsy Party and the Khmer Nation Party, was founded in 1995 and merged with other opposition forces to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2012.

In November 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in a move that allowed the CPP to win all 125 seats in Parliament in a July 2018 election.

Candlelight officials allege they have been falsely accused of using fake names for candidates and putting forward some candidates for election without their permission. At least two Candlelight Party activists have been jailed on allegations of submitting false documents to run in the communal elections.

Activists say the harassment often comes at the hand of local police. Candlelight Party activist Sim SoKhoeun told RFA that he was summoned to his local police station in Pursat province on Monday. Once there, police could not produce any complaint against him.

“After asking me to wait for an hour, they set me free,” he said, adding that he suspected the move was meant to intimidate him.

The Candlelight Party’s boycott threat came as a U.N. human rights official warned that the rights of Cambodians to speak freely and challenge authorities are being eroded by single-party rule.

Vitit Muntarbhorn, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, called on all CPP officials to respect basic freedoms of expression and assembly. He spoke via video at a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Tuesday.

“Civic and political space in Cambodia have receded and regressed due to what is effectively all-intrusive single-party rule,” he said.

The outlook for human rights and democracy in Cambodia is troubling on many fronts as local, commune elections approach in June, Vitit Muntarbhorn said.

Although Cambodia has made progress by drafting laws to protect “vulnerable people” and has reduced a backlog of court cases that had kept people in jail before their trial, Vitit Muntarbhorn said that he had immediate concerns about “closing civic and political space; mass trials and imprisonment of political opposition members; and the upcoming elections.”

“I call on all authorities in Cambodia to respect fundamental human rights and international human rights laws to which the country is a party, including the basic freedoms of expression and assembly,” he said.

Too much impunity

Kata Orn, spokesman for the government’s Cambodia Human Rights Committee, said the government does not abuse human rights and that only politicians abuse the law.

“The special rapporteur for Cambodia confused the meaning of human rights abuse and abuse of the law,” he said.

Seventeen political parties have registered to put forward candidates in the communal elections, he said.

Kang Savang, a monitor with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), said although local authorities are supposed to remain neutral, some of them, including police officers, have abused their power and threatened the opposition party.

He warned that the integrity of the communal elections would be affected without new measures to prevent political threats against Candlelight Party. Kang Savang urged the Ministry of Interior to investigate the conduct of local authorities.

“Impunity will allow perpetrators to not be concerned about their conduct,” he said.

Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), said local officials do not have the authority to resolve election-related disputes. Those instead must be handled by Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC).

“It is the NEC’s job. If there are disputes, they should file a complaint with the NEC,” he said.

RFA couldn’t reach Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak for comment on Tuesday, but Interior Minister Sar Kheng said at a meeting a day earlier that the Candlelight Party was using fake candidate names and then names of others without their consent — a punishable crime. He mentioned a few districts where this had occurred.

Thach Setha denied the accusation, saying local authorities had not produced any evidence to support their claims.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.