Observers say the jailing of a member of the Candlelight Party in Oddar Meanchey last week is meant to send a chilling message to other opposition politicians looking to run in next year’s local elections.
Sok Vil, who was previously a second deputy commune chief for the now-banned CNRP, returned to politics this year joining the newly-launched Candlelight Party. He was planning to run as a commune chief in 2022.
Then, he was arrested last Wednesday for alleged involvement in a 2019 plot regarding former opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s planned return to Cambodia, and was swiftly sentenced to 5 years in prison.
“He was an accomplice to a plot, and he was placed in prison,” said Peng Mengkoang, deputy prosecutor of Oddar Meanchey province. Vil has appealed the conviction, with a hearing scheduled for December 30.
CPP spokesman, Sok Eysan, denied that Vil’s arrest had anything to do with his opposition party membership.
“People are free to follow the Candlelight Party if they wish, so there is no problem at all,” he said. “The public mustn’t think people who join the party will be arrested, that isn’t the case.”
However, Sok Vil’s wife Phun Phoeun, 44, alleged that CPP members were constantly pressuring her husband to join the ruling party.
“They always came to lobby him to defect to their party, but he refused because he dislikes them,” Phoeun said.
The party sent a letter to the Justice Ministry on Monday asking them to intervene to free Vil, with the ministry’s spokesman Chin Malin saying it would be reviewed.
Candlelight Party leader Thach Setha told CamboJA he believed the charges against Vil were trumped up and meant to prevent him from participating in politics.
Korng Savang, from the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), agreed that Vil’s arrest likely had to do with the upcoming election and urged the government to respect people’s political rights otherwise there would not be “an equal electoral process.”
But Moung Por, who is also a former CNRP deputy commune chief turned Candlelight Party member, said he was undeterred by his colleague’s arrest and would continue to run next year.
“I joined the party because I didn’t see a real credible opposition party — as of now the ruling party can do what they want,” he said.
“We are advocating for a free and fair election…. We will go forward even although it is threatened,” he added.
Por said the fact that Vil was only arrested now, in relation to a 2019 incident, made him wonder why the authorities had waited, adding: “I think they want to scare our activists not to join the Candlelight Party.”
Pa Chanroeun, president of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, said that because the Candlelight Party is an offshoot of the banned CNRP, its members “ will face many challenges” in the months ahead.