Facing the seizure of his properties after losing a $1 million defamation lawsuit brought by the ruling CPP, Son Chhay appears less vocal than ever before in a decades-long political career defined by speaking his mind.
“Before I could say anything freely as a parliamentarian, but now it is different,” he said in an interview with CamboJA. “I must be careful of public speaking, talking to the media.”
But that doesn’t mean he is ready to shut up as he gingerly leads the Candlelight Party towards the national elections in July.
The 66-year-old vice president of Cambodia’s leading opposition party, Chhay endured a turbulent year after being sued by the ruling party and the National Election Committee (NEC) for publicly claiming the NEC was biased against opposition parties in the June 5 commune elections. The ruling party won all but four commune chief positions out of 1,652 in the election.
Upholding his defamation conviction, the Court of Appeal ordered Chhay to pay the CPP $1 million in damages. Yet Chhay has so far refused, leading the court to issue a warrant for authorities to confiscate his two homes in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. He has appealed his case to the Supreme Court and it is not yet clear when the court will issue a ruling.
“I have done nothing wrong, and I will continue to advocate by going to the Supreme Court and appealing to the UN right to freedom of expression,” Chhay said. “I really don’t understand why they [the CPP] demand so much compensation from me, what is their intention?”
A number of European lawmakers issued a public statement on December 13 expressing concern over political repression in Cambodia, calling for the EU to closely monitor the situation in Cambodia to ensure the Candlelight Party is not dissolved in the months leading up to the July national elections.
Asked if he saw the defamation lawsuit as political oppression, Chhay replied: “I cannot answer that, but it is disrupting my work to help the Party as one the party’s top leaders.”
Chhay said he could not predict whether Candlelight would be disbanded in the future as the road to the election was filled with political minefields. The party would be dissolved if any connection to exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy emerged, Hun Sen had warned.
“We must not do anything that creates evidence for the ruling party to use to dissolve [Candlelight Party],” Chhay said. “Caution will prevent the opposition from dissolution as happened to the CNRP.”
Chhay, one of the 118 CNRP officials barred from politics after the Supreme Court dissolved the popular opposition party in November 2017, applied for a pardon to re-enter politics in 2020. He led the rebranding of the Candlelight Party from the remains of Sam Rainsy Party, though he initially faced veiled criticism from political activists sticking with the CNRP in exile.
While appearing to warmly welcome Chhay back to politics in 2020, CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan has now dismissed Chhay as a political follower.
“He is just a follower of the political leader, and all decisions were not made by his own will, he just follows his boss,” he said, referring to Rainsy.
Yet Chhay has long had an independent streak, expressing wariness over the CNRP’s reliance on Rainsy and Sokha’s cults of personality. He hoped to decentralize power in the Candlelight Party.
“I wanted to make one opposition party with a strong structure without depending on a specific individual,” Chhay said.
More than two decades of advocacy
Born as the third child of 11 in Siem Reap in 1956, Chhay became involved in social activism as a high school student leading a protest against the high price of goods in the province in the early 70s.
After losing his father and two siblings to the Khmer Rouge, Chhay immigrated to Australia in 1980 and worked as a math teacher before returning to Cambodia and participating in the 1993 UN-backed election. He was successfully elected to serve as a parliamentarian representing Siem Reap for the anti-communist Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, later joining the Khmer National Party, a forerunner to Candlelight, in 1995.
He became a more prominent player on the national stage after a coup led by CPP loyalists in 1997 ousted the Funcinpec party led by prince Norodom Ranaridhh from a power-sharing arrangement. Opposition figures, including Chhay fled to Thailand, but Chhay returned and attempted to calm the conflict, pushing for new elections in 1998.
Veteran politician Kong Korm, currently Candlelight’s supreme adviser, said Chhay was always a political facilitator, intent on promoting democracy.
“Son Chhay was the one of the first who returned to the country to mediate between the two sides seeking re-election,” he said. “Chhay carried out a personal mission.”
Chhay said he was not an influential person then but was motivated to seek nation reconciliation.
“At the time, I met the late King father [Norodom Sihanouk] and Prime Minister Hun Sen, talking about preparing for the elections,” he said. “I don’t know if my efforts led to the general election in 1998 but I did the job.”
Keo Phirum, a former CNRP lawmaker from Kratie province, remains one of Chhay’s close colleagues, and said Chhay’s political strength is his unrelenting honesty and integrity.
“He has a good relationship with others in the party, but he is a person who likes to work alone, without nepotism in the party,” he said. “He is an outspoken lawmaker who dares to demand for justice. He is a social justice defender without fearing for his own safety.”
Chhay said Hun Sen had wanted him to join CPP in 1998, but he refused and became part of the opposition party led by Sam Rainsy. Following the party’s merger with Sokha’s Human Rights Party to form the CNRP in 2012, Chhay was selected as the CNRP’s chief whip.
During more than two decades as an opposition lawmaker, Son Chhay became widely known for his vocal advocacy in the National Assembly. He proposed some of Cambodia’s first ever anti-corruption laws in 1995, including a law requiring asset declaration among government officials, but it would take another 15 years before the government passed similar legislation.
As the vice president of the Assembly’s financial committee from 2014 to 2017, Chhay had power to monitor government spending and was unafraid to reveal suspected corruption of fellow officials. His zealous spirit was rarely met with enthusiasm by the rest of the Assembly.
In November 2014, Chhay filed a complaint to the National Assembly president detailing nepotism within the National Assembly staff, pointing out that fourteen relatives of an Assembly administrator were employed there. No action was taken, he recalled.
In another instance, Chhay discovered the Assembly secretariat had also spent $35,000 for a flag pole and $50,000 for a gate. He urged for an investigation, which never happened.
Despite the frequent lack of concrete response to his scrutiny of the national budget and legislative proposals over the years, Chhay said he has always remained focused on building a strong and confident opposition party to improve government institutions and civic society.
“Social justice and democracy in Cambodia are important,” he said. “Without social justice, there is no real peace, so I must continue to fight for social justice.”
Opposition under threat
At a speech for a road inauguration in Preah Sihanouk province on December 22, Hun Sen warned that anyone who accused the CPP of stealing the upcoming elections would face jail time.
“After the election, they always accused [the CPP] of being a thief, this is not freedom of expression,” Hun Sen said. “From now on, those who accuse the CPP of being a thief, they must be sued.”
While the Prime Minister and the ruling party defended the commune elections’ integrity, reports from independent election monitoring groups documented the presence of armed forces at polling stations and inadequate efforts to ensure voters were properly registered. Some election officials, including those involved in ballot counting, were also ruling party activists, according to the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.
Hun Sen claimed Chhay’s hefty court-ordered damages were a measure to eliminate the culture of politically divisive rhetoric after the election and called for his property to be auctioned off.
Candlelight advisor Korm claimed that Son Chhay’s remarks on the June 5 commune election were indeed defamatory but believed the damages were excessive.
“I think both the opposition and ruling CPP have their own extremists, so we should find a way to stop attacks and accusations against each other,” he said. “I think that it will not be a problem for the Candlelight, but it could be an obstacle for Son Chhay’s political life since the court does not exempt the opposition.”
If the Supreme Court rules against him, Chhay would become the second opposition politician after exiled Sam Rainsy to have his property confiscated to repay lawsuit damages.
The CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh — Rainsy’s house — was sold for $1.6 million last year in order to pay damages in a defamation case brought by Hun Sen and two other top ruling party officials.
Presenting himself as unfazed, Chhay explained this was not the first time his property had been threatened, noting in 2010 government authorities had confiscated three hectares of land he allegedly owned in Siem Reap, which they claimed was actually state property, and sold it to tycoon Sok Kong.
But Chhay, whose wife and five children live in Australia, said he had learned not to allow the loss of assets or impact on his personal life to prevent him from staying in politics.
“It is not about my personal interest and what I am concerned with,” Chhay said. “If so, I am afraid I could not continue to help the party.”