Prime Minister Hun Sen warned Candlelight’s leaders on Monday that they would face legal consequences or violence if they continued to criticize the ruling CPP.
Speaking at a road inauguration in Kampong Cham, Hun Sen lashed out at Kong Korm, a former CPP official turned Candlelight party supreme advisor, claiming that Korm had repeatedly attacked the CPP.
“There are two choices: the first is to use legal actions,” Hun Sen said. “And the second is to use a stick. This means that I will gather all the CPP’s supporters to hold a demonstration and hit you. So, which one do you prefer?”
Hun Sen said Korm had continued to criticize the January 7 victory day, a national holiday to celebrate the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime after Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia, eventually leading to CPP rule. But opposition figures have said the holiday merely marked the start of Vietnam’s decade-long occupation of Cambodia.
“Do you want to become an enemy of the CPP? If you want to win the election, you can only promote your party’s policies,” said Hun Sen, referring to Candlelight. “Why do you have to attack the CPP? I would like to warn you that if you continue to do so, we will exercise our right to self-defense based on legal means.”
The Prime Minister reminded his audience and potential critics that “Hun Sen dared to handcuff the traitor [Kem Sokha] at 12 o’clock at night, Hun Sen is not afraid of anything.”
Hun Sen said Korm illegally built a house on state property following Korm’s time as a CPP official and foreign affairs minister in the 1980s.
“I can sue you to retake your house,” Hun Sen told Korm.
Korm told CamboJA that the Prime Minister may have gotten angry at him for undermining the significance of the January 7 national holiday but brushed off concerns.
“I do not remember what I said seriously affecting the January 7 day and I am not worried about the property seizure since I have been living there since 1982,” Korm said. “I do not think it’s a threat, but maybe I was using harsh words that made him [Hun Sen] angry, so I think he might just be reminding me.”
Korm said he will continue to work with the Candlelight Party until the July national election.
After leaving the CPP in 1992 Korm joined the opposition Sam Rainsy party, then became part of the CNRP until it was dissolved in 2017. He then switched to the Khmer Will Party led by his youngest son Kong Molika. When the Khmer Will Party announced an alliance with Candlelight following the June 5 commune elections last year, Korm was appointed Candlelight’s top advisor. He began stepping up his public criticism of the CPP after years of relative silence.
Hun Sen also warned Kong Korm’s third son, Kong Bora, who defected from the dissolved CNRP to the CPP in 2019 and currently serves as the Ministry of Interior undersecretary of state, to be careful. Kong Bora could not be reached for comment.
Candlelight Party’s secretary general Ly Sothearayuth said that politicians criticizing each other’s policies is normal in a healthy democracy. He said he was surprised to hear the Prime Minister’s threatening message in the run-up to the July national elections.
“I think that it is not a good sign to increase political threats against other political parties,” he said. “Civic space and political rights must be open before the election.”
Candlelight has ramped up its political activities as the national election approaches, including co-vice president Thach Setha’s trip to South Korea to garner support among Cambodian migrant workers.
During national celebrations of the January 7 “Victory Day,” Hun Sen announced he would destroy so-called extremist groups, referring to exiled opposition leaders like Sam Rainsy.
Claiming the CPP would follow the National Election Committee (NEC)’s regulations and procedures in the upcoming national elections, Hun Sen warned anyone who accused the CPP of stealing the upcoming elections would face legal measures.
The CPP and the NEC already sued Candlelight co-vice president Son Chhay for defamation after he claimed the electoral process was biased in favor of the CPP. Chhay was ordered by courts to pay $1 million in damages to the CPP and two of his properties in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh were seized by authorities.
A defamation case against Sam Rainsy brought by Hun Sen and two top ruling party officials led to the seizure of Rainsy’s Phnom Penh house — which also served as the CNRP headquarters — sold in 2021 for $1.6 million to pay back damages.
Political analyst Em Sovannara said criticism of political parties is not inherently illegal.
“If the criticism by the politicians was made in accordance with the law, it was the freedom of politics and there should not be any problem,” he said. “Any forms of political threatening and restriction causes the space of freedom of expression, political freedom and democracy to get smaller.”
Sovanara said another reason for the threat of legal action against opposition politicians is that issues raised by the opposition parties are sensitive for the CPP.
He said that without pressure from the international community, Candlelight would likely face great obstacles as the national elections neared.
“To maintain the stability for its new generations, the CPP must find ways to keep the opposition out of competition with the CPP,” he said.
Sovanara said the seizing of properties of opposition politicians could create a precedent for revenge in the future if another party took over, noting one party could not hold the power forever.
(Additional reporting by Phon Sotthyroth)