Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday warned the opposition Candlelight Party that it would face dissolution over ties to former CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who founded the party that was later renamed Candlelight.
In a speech in Kampong Chhnang province, Hun Sen urged Candlelight leaders, including party president Teav Vannol and vice presidents Son Chhay and Thach Setha, to publicly condemn Rainsy for calling the king a “traitor.”
The prime minister also called on Candlelight’s members and commune councilors to leave their party and join the ruling CPP or another party.
“I want the leaders of the Candlelight Party to come out and clearly state whether Sam Rainsy’s statement is correct or incorrect,” Hun Sen said. “The Law on Political Parties stipulates that no political parties should be linked with a criminal, so at this point, I would like to tell you that the clues are leading to a [dissolution].”
Rainsy, who has lived abroad for years, founded the Sam Rainsy Party, which was rebranded as Candlelight in 2018 after a political parties law, amended by the CPP-dominated parliament, made it illegal for parties to be named after an individual or be led by someone convicted of a crime. Rainsy has been convicted of numerous crimes, which he says are politically motivated.
“Members of Candlelight should leave the party as soon as possible to avoid problems, because this is a force that could lead to overthrowing the government and the monarchy,” the prime minister added on Wednesday.
Hun Sen also claimed that he had recordings of online meetings between Rainsy and Candlelight leaders.
“Why should I raise this? Because Candlelight was formed by Sam Rainsy and I would like to call on the commune councilors of the party to come out to condemn [him] without fear of losing their positions,” he said.
Candlelight became the CPP’s main opposition challenger in the June commune elections, following the CNRP’s 2017 dissolution. The party won just four commune chief positions compared to the CPP’s 1,648.
Hun Sen also said unnamed “anti-government” NGOs should not remain silent about Rainsy’s words.
“I believe that among the anti-government NGOs, they do not [condemn Rainsy] because they also join to overthrow the government and the monarchy,” he said.
The accusations recalled government statements from 2017 in which officials alleged the then-main opposition CNRP, led by Rainsy and Kem Sokha, were conspiring with foreign powers in a “color revolution” plot to oust the long-ruling CPP from power.
Sokha, who was charged with treason two months before the CNRP was dissolved, has denied the allegations, saying he has only tried to win elections.
Soeng Senkaruna, spokesperson for human rights group Adhoc, said the political conflict should not be linked to civil society organizations working independently to promote human rights.
“Why should civil society organizations be involved? It is a verbal attack between the two leaders,” he said. “It raises concerns for NGOs about their work and activities because politicians are trying to link civil society organizations to their political agenda.”
According to a video clip posted online by government-aligned Fresh News this week, Rainsy referred to King Norodom Sihamoni as a “traitor” while giving a speech.
“The current king has not even a little national pride. After Hun Sen, the current king is a traitor,” Rainsy said in the video.
Asked why he had referred to the king as a “traitor,” Rainsy told CamboJA that Hun Sen had “forcibly associated” the king with the prime minister’s “treacherous act,” the royal endorsement of a 2005 border treaty with Vietnam, which Rainsy said was signed by the king “under threat.”
“Ceding Cambodia’s territory to a foreign country is an act of treason,” Rainsy said in an email.
The politician has long accused Hun Sen and the CPP of ceding territory to Vietnam and acting as a puppet of the neighboring nation.
On Wednesday, Rainsy said Hun Sen was threatening Candlelight with dissolution due to fear.
“Hun Sen is afraid of the Candlelight as the only credible opposition party and he is seeking any pretext to stifle the growth of this party,” Rainsy said in an email.
Earlier this month, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered Son Chhay, a Candlelight vice president and former SRP official, to pay the ruling CPP 3 billion riel ($750,000) in damages, finding him guilty of defamation for saying that voting fraud occurred during the June commune elections.
Thach Setha, another Candlelight vice president, denied any involvement between his party and Rainsy, saying the Candlelight Party respected the constitution and the role of the king.
“We do not support anyone who violates the constitution and insults the king, not even Sam Rainsy,” he said.
Setha said he considered Hun Sen’s statements calling on Candlelight members to defect to the CPP as only political rhetoric to seek support.
“It’s not difficult for us because we follow the law, but if they intend to dissolve [Candlelight], we cannot do anything, because it is like the CNRP, which was dissolved even though they have no evidence, but they could still do it,” he said.
Political analyst Em Sovannara said the conflict between Hun Sen and Rainsy was a personal matter and should not be considered a national issue, which would worsen the political climate.
He said Hun Sen was already campaigning ahead of July’s national election, with the prime minister threatening a political rival, especially Candlelight, which had seen support from voters.
“[Candlelight] could win more than a third [of the seats] in parliament, which is enough to summon government officials for questioning,” Sovannara said.
But, the analyst said any party that followed Hun Sen’s wishes would lose voters’ confidence. “It seems that if this party will surrender to the ruling party and lose its political position, it will lose support,” he said.
Rainsy, meanwhile, said it was too early to decide which party he would endorse in the national election next year, but the CNRP would continue to fight for reinstatement by “internally and externally insist[ing] on that requirement, which will be automatically met when Kem Sokha is cleared of the ‘treason’ charges unjustly and ridiculously levied against him by Hun Sen.”Closing arguments in Sokha’s trial are scheduled for December 21. (Additional reporting by Matt Surrusco)