Banteay Meanchey Provincial Police detained and questioned 23 Candlelight party officials over the weekend for allegedly lying to people while collecting thumbprints to establish a new political party. Police say party members falsely told citizens that CPP leaders were behind the effort to create the new party.
“They have been arrested for using the names of Samdech Krolahom [Sar Kheng] and Samdech Pichey Sena [Tea Banh] for creating the party,” said Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak, who declined to comment further.
Sar Kheng is the former Interior Minister and Tea Banh is the former National Defense Minister. Both recently left their positions with the change of government, passing on their roles to their sons.
The police actions over the weekend represent the largest group detainment of Candlelight members under Prime Minister Hun Manet’s new government.
On Sunday, 17 detainees were released, most serving as commune councillors, after signing a document swearing they were not involved in the offense.
Of the remaining six detainees, four served in higher level party positions: Provincial Candlelight Party Chief Sin Vatha, his deputy Long Lavy, Mongkol Borei district Candlelight Party Chief Tuot Veasna and his deputy Chum Sinath. Commune Councillor Van Suy Iv and activist Tep Sambath Mono also remain detained for questioning.
Vatha was fired from his high school teaching position in June by the Education Ministry due to “professional misconduct of a civil servant,” but he believed his termination was a result of his political activities.
Former Candlelight Party Secretary Suon Khemrin, who was detained on Saturday and released on Sunday, said police told him during his questioning that Suy Iv collected thumbprints from citizens to create a political party and told villagers the party was supported by top government leaders.
“I was released after signing a contract because I wasn’t involved in collecting thumbprints,” Khemrin said.
He said he was questioned because of his previous secretary position, although he resigned from the position in June after learning the party was disqualified from running in the national election.
Concerning the state of the new government under Hun Manet, he said “I think the situation has not changed because there are still a lot of people who are being arrested for various reasons.”
Candlelight spokesperson Kimsour Phearith called on the relevant authorities to release the innocent party members.
“We have already instructed [members] not to do anything that breaks the law,” he said. “I don’t know the [police department’s] intentions because after the election they are still arresting [party members].”
He said that the Candlelight party does not have any intention aside from joining elections legally.
“We want to work together for constructive development and to have a real unity in the nation,” he said. “Until now, we do not see any sign of a better [political situation]. But we are optimistic the government will reconsider opening democratic space in the future.”
Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator for the human rights group Adhoc, said the political situation in Cambodia still remains bad, despite some countries congratulating Prime Minister Hun Manet on his new role.
“The political situation has not gotten better because there are continued arrests of [Candlelight members]. There is an image of restricting rights and freedom of political activity,” he said. “I think that the new government and the old government are the same because they were both formed by the ruling party [CPP].”
Banteay Meanchey Provincial Police Chief Sith Lous and government spokesperson Pen Bona declined to comment. Ruling CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan could not be reached.