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Local officials linked to Cambodia’s opposition party forced to condemn Sam Rainsy

Cambodia’s main opposition Candlelight Party on Friday called on authorities to stop trying to force local officials to publicly condemn Hun Sen’s exiled political rival Sam Rainsy.

In a statement, the party urged the Ministry of Interior to advise local authorities to stop “intimidating activities” to ensure that the upcoming 2023 general election can be free and fair.

Sam Rainsy is a co-founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was the previous main opposition party before the country’s Supreme Court dissolved it in 2017. He has been living in self-exile in France since 2015, when he fled a series of charges his supporters say are politically motivated.

Cambodia has convicted and sentenced Sam Rainsy in absentia several times during his exile, including handing him a life sentence this month on bogus claims that he attempted to cede four Cambodian provinces to a foreign state.

Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, threatened last week that he would dissolve any party that associates with Sam Rainsy and accused those who support him of being against Cambodia’s king.

Several Candlelight Party members who were elected to local commune council seats in elections this summer were then told to sign petitions declaring they rebuke Sam Rainsy.

“This is a serious violation against the constitution and universal declaration on civil and political rights and freedom of expression,” the Candlelight Party statement said. The party is gathering evidence and will file an official complaint, vice president Thach Setha said.

RFA was unable to reach Ministry of Interior Spokesman Khieu Sopheak for comment Friday.

One Candlelight Party commune councilor told RFA’s Khmer service that when he refused to sign the statement, he was asked by his colleague from Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP to appear at the commune office to declare his stance in regards to Sam Rainsy.

“I told  [the commune chief] that I am waiting on orders from the party but he said he also received his orders from the top,” said Sorn Meang, who sits on the council of Da commune in the southeastern province of Tbong Khmum. 

“This is a threat against another commune councilor,” he said

Chhoyy Mao, the commune chief told RFA that he did ask Sorn Meang about Sam Rainsy but denied he forced him to sign or say anything.

“Only the CPP councilors placed their thumbprint next to their names, but none from the Candlelight Party did,” he said. “I explained the reason but [Sorn Meang] said he was waiting for orders.”

On Thursday, the Candlelight Party said that political dialogue between Hun Sen and the party has resumed after the party issued a public statement to distance itself from Sam Rainsy by condemning those who insult the king, without naming any specific person.

Hun Sen posted that statement on Facebook with a comment saying he appreciated the party for following his request.

CPP spokesman Sok Ey San denied that the party had instructed party activists to threaten the Candlelight Party. However, he said those who refuse to condemn Sam Rainsy are insulting the king.

“There is no threat,” he said. “People nationwide have condemned [Sam Rainsy] and those who disagree have revealed their stance on the nation, our religion, and our king.”

Local authorities have abused the Candlelight Party’s commune councilor rights, according to Soeung Seng Karuna, spokesperson for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association.

He said allegations over the king stemmed from political conflict between the CPP and the dissolved opposition party. 

“In a democratic countries they value free thoughts, ideas and political affiliations,” he said. “The authorities are abusing people by preventing them from making free decisions and trying to affect their political will.”

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