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Hun Sen’s call for fair local elections this June in Cambodia raises eyebrows

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said Wednesday that he would not stump for his party in local elections in June and urged authorities to remain neutral during the campaign, an appeal that did little to comfort the beleaguered opposition.

After a spate of violence and harassment directed against aspiring candidates, however, critics and political opponents told RFA that Hun Sen must allow real challenges to candidates from his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the nationwide elections.

Hun Sen’s comments came during a ceremony for a flood prevention and improvement project in Phnom Penh. He said local officials must work to ensure the June 5 elections are free and fair.

“If CPP wins the election, all people can live together. Now we have 17 parties participating in the election,” he said. “I won’t … campaign, but I want to stress that we please don’t allow any types of violence during the election process.”

Earlier this month, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, an electoral watchdog, criticized Hun Sen for appealing for votes while on official duty, a violation of the country’s election laws. A CPP spokesman said the prime minister was simply promoting his administration’s accomplishments.

Cambodian authorities also barred 100 candidates from the emerging Candlelight Party from participating in the elections. The party, has been gaining steam  despite a crackdown against it and other opposition parties.

On Wednesday, Hun Sen said that all political parties should have equal rights during the election, including parties that oppose his government. 

“I appeal to all places, to allow people to participate in the election so they can vote for their candidates freely,” he said.

Hun Sen has made similar statements in the past, but the situation for his political opponents continues to worsen, Thach Setha, vice president of the Candlelight Party, told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“If he talks without taking any measures against the perpetrators [of violence], it can’t guarantee a good election environment free from intimidation and assault,” Thach Setha said, noting that many political activists remain in prison.

“This needs to end to ensure that the election will be free and fair. Please stop using the court to issue warrants and summons” to political opponents, he said.

On Monday, RFA reported that Seam Pluk, president of the National Heart Party, is in hiding after an arrest warrant for forgery of documents for June local elections was issued. Critics said his charges were trumped up amid a government crackdown on the opposition.

Hun Sen’s appeal Wednesday for fair elections will be ineffective without concrete action, Kang Savang, a monitor with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, told RFA.

Several NGOs have asked the government to ensure a safe election environment, but the government has so far not acted on their request, Kang Savang said.

“If there is only a message without an order toward the local authorities it is not enough,” he said.

Opponents of the CPP have been targeted in a 5-year-old crackdown that has sent leaders of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) into exile and landed scores of its supporters in prison.

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

The June 5 election will decide who serves in a total of 11,622 seats in local districts known as communes across Cambodia.

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