Like many opposition officials who were banned from politics in 2017, Chea Poch, a former Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker from Kampot province, kept quiet for five years for his safety.
Poch, one of the 118 CNRP officials barred from politics after the Supreme Court dissolved the popular opposition party in November 2017, has now regained his political rights after the ban was lifted on November 16.
A close ally to opposition leader Sam Rainsy, Poch told CamboJA in an interview that he plans to join the Candlelight Party — though not immediately.
“I’m waiting to see the better political situation, so I think it should not be rushed for me,” he said. “I will not defect to the ruling CPP, I do not hate the CPP, but we have different opinions that make me unable to join the CPP.”
For the past five years, Poch has worked as a land dealer and helped his relatives sell construction materials while his wife ran a money exchange shop at Phsar Chas.
“I do not register my name in the business because I think it would make it difficult, I don’t know what will happen, but it may cause some difficulties from the authorities,” he said.
This was the first time Poch spoke to the media since the ban, saying his movements had been closely tracked during the past half-decade.
“I was banned from politics for five years though I did nothing wrong. I was threatened to be immediately handcuffed if I dared to do something related to politics,” he said. “I was watched over… even when I went outside for coffee, someone was following me.”
He noted that his phone was even bugged or hacked, with a private conversation of his in which he criticized the prime minister released on the government mouthpiece Fresh News.
“I do not even dare to mention Sam Rainsy’s name in public, because I was afraid they will link me to Sam Rainsy,” he added.
SInce the ban has been lifted, former officials have an array of plans.
Former CNRP lawmaker Kimsour Phirith, immediately announced he was joining the opposition Candlelight Party.
Speaking Sunday on the 27th anniversary of the founding of the Candlelight Party — which began as the Sam Rainsy Party — Phirith said he hopes the party would do well in the 2023 general election.
“It is not too late, as long as we keep our position strong and focused on our goal as we go, one day the success will surely come to us,” he said.
The political slogan “change,” which in 2017 the Cambodian People’s Party-led government claimed was proof of the CNRP’s intention to overthrow the government, was revived during the party’s anniversary.
“The words “change or not change” gave us a five-year political ban, but we still continue the message,” Phirith said.
While some formerly barred officials immediately announced their intention to join the Candlelight Party, others have said they are retiring, while some have yet to issue public plans.
Former CNRP lawmaker Yon Tharo said he had decided to retire from politics and in order to continuing running the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Cultural Center, of which he is president.
“The issue is that I decide not to return to politics because I am old and my health is not good enough,” he said, adding that he remains in favor of the Rainsy-aligned opposition party.
“When I have regained the political rights, I cannot continue, but my heart is still with democrats; I am sorry to end my political life,” he said.
Hing Soksan, the former chairman of the CNRP’s Youth Movement, who has been living in exile in the US, said he hoped to eventually return to Cambodia.
“I never care about this since political rights are already ensured by the constitution,” he said, adding that the CPP’s efforts to ban 118 CNRP officials were politically motivated and abused the constitution.
“I will not give up my political struggle by non-violent ways leading to change in Cambodia,” he said. “I will return to Cambodia when the situation improves so that I can do politics freely.”
Soksan, a supporter of CNRP president Kem Sokha, said he was waiting for the conclusion of Sokha’s long-running trial on December 21 before deciding which party to join.
“I have not yet seen which party I could join because I have to wait for the political solution if CNRP would be reinstated or we need to create a new one,” he said.
The CNRP, created in 2012 through a merger between Sam Rainsy Party and Sokha’s Human Rights Party, won 55 seats in parliament in 2013 and won more than 5,000 commune councilor seats in June 2017. Analysts say the party’s strong showing at the commune level, one year before the National Election, led to its November 2017 court-ordered dissolution and a wave of repression directed at the opposition, as well as NGOs and media in its wake.
In September 2017, Sokha was arrested and jailed on charges of treason with foreign collusion. He was released on bail one year later, though he remained under house arrest for another year. His case, which has dragged on for five years, is set to conclude in December.
The dissolution of the CNRP led to the political ban. However, during the past five years some officials have requested the reinstatement of their political rights to create new political parties.
According to a list provided by Ou Chanrath, vice president of the newly formed Cambodia Reform Party, nearly 30 of the 118 barred officials have returned to politics — 11 of whom had applied before the ban was lifted.
The list shows that about 30 members of the Kem Sokha faction remain unaffiliated with any party, while some former Sam Rainsy Party officials have joined the Candlelight Party. Around six joined the CPP, while 14 have been convicted criminal charges — with many of them in exile to avoid imprisonment.
Meach Sovannara, a former CNRP official, said that only about 70 CNRP officials said they planned to restart their political careers since some living in exile had been convicted and cannot return to Cambodia.
“Some died and some retired from politics, some joined the Candlelight while those who are loyal to Kem Sokha remain in silence waiting for Sokha.” Sovanara said, adding that he will join politics after Sokha regains his political rights.
Son Chhay, vice president of Candlelight Party, told CamboJA that so far three senior former CNRP officials have said they will join the party.
Cambodia Reform Party Founder Ou Chanrath said his party has not yet received any politicians whose political ban was lifted.
“I just know that those who are loyal to Sam Rainsy have returned to the Candlelight Party, while those from the Human Rights Party remain undecided,” he said. “We have already tried to express our position, so the decision is up to them, we do not have to persuade them since they are all senior officials.”
CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan said party members are free to join any party they wish, noting the lifting of the ban showed how democratic the government was.
“This shows that the political space in Cambodia is open, unlike some media reports which are not true,” he said.
Em Sovannara, a political analyst, said the former CNRP officials had no choice but to return to the Candlelight Party because it was their old home.
“It will make the Candlelight Party more active than in 2022, but we still cannot assume the momentum of support like the National Rescue [party],” he said.
He added that the 2023 election will have only two viable political parties, the Candlelight Party and the CPP, but that he had little hope the new opposition could make real inroads. “I do not think it is possible for the National Rescue to be resumed.”
(Additional reporting by Ou Leang Chhay)