The opposition Candlelight Party said authorities have coerced the party’s commune councilors to censure opposition figure Sam Rainsy, after Prime Minister Hun Sen told Candlelight members to condemn Rainsy or face possible dissolution.
In a party statement released Thursday, Candlelight denied any affiliation with Rainsy, the co-founder of the outlawed opposition CNRP, while two of Candlelight’s four elected commune chiefs said local officials told them to thumbprint a letter condemning Rainsy. The third chief declined to comment and fourth chief could not be reached for comment.
Thach Setha, a Candlelight vice president, said the party’s commune councilors were under threat by district authorities since Hun Sen’s statements about the party and Rainsy on Wednesday.
“We have received information that commune councilors of the Candlelight Party nationwide have been threatened [by local authorities] to thumbprint a condemnation letter [against Rainsy],” he said.
In the June commune elections, Candlelight won just four commune chief positions, with the ruling CPP winning the other 1,648. More than 2,000 commune councilors from Candlelight were also elected — dwarfed by the CPP’s 9,376 councilors now in office.
Setha said the party would seek intervention from the Interior Ministry to prevent threats by local officials.
“This coercion is illegal,” he said. “[Authorities] must respect the will of the individual. They cannot use power to threaten.”
Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment.
On Wednesday, Hun Sen warned the Candlelight Party that it would face dissolution over affiliations with Rainsy, who founded both the dissolved CNRP and the Sam Rainsy Party, which was renamed Candlelight in 2018.
The party rebranding came after the CPP-dominated parliament amended the Law on Political Parties, making it illegal for parties to be named after an individual or be led by someone convicted of a crime. Rainsy has been convicted of multiple crimes, which he says are politically motivated.
“Members of Candlelight should leave the party as soon as possible to avoid problems,” Hun Sen said in a speech, while also urging Candlelight leaders to condemn Rainsy for calling the king a “traitor.”
In recent weeks, Hun Sen has blasted Rainsy, calling him a national traitor, threatening his arrest if he returned to Cambodia and accusing him of insulting the king.
On Thursday, Setha said Candlelight’s statement was not a response to Hun Sen’s warning, but a public announcement to explain that the party was not affiliated with Rainsy.
“We are not under pressure, and we are not afraid of anything,” Setha said. “We do not express our position [only] to the prime minister, but we also announce to the public to protect the monarchy.”
According to their statement, Candlelight “makes decisions based on its full sovereignty and responsibility stated in its bylaws and not under any other party or anyone’s command, whether directly or indirectly.”
Without mentioning Rainsy, the party said it respected the role of the king as stated in the constitution. “The Candlelight Party condemns anyone who has the intention to insult the king and the monarchy,” the statement said.
In response to questions from CamboJA about Candlelight’s statement, Rainsy said, “Any political party has the right to specify their position on any topic.”
On Wednesday, Rainsy said Hun Sen was threatening Candlelight with dissolution because the prime minister feared “the only credible opposition party and he is seeking any pretext to stifle the growth of this party.”
Asked whether he or other CNRP members living abroad had been in contact with Candlelight members, Rainsy declined to answer, replying: “Why would I answer this question? For Scotland Yard or the KGB?”
No Coercion, Only “Volunteering”
In Kampong Thom province’s Kraya commune, Candlelight’s newly elected commune chief, Yab Yot, said the commune’s four councilors from Candlelight were told by authorities to endorse a letter censuring Rainsy.
“I have not yet decided, but I may have to do so because if I do not, it means that I support Sam Rainsy,” he said. “The party [Candlelight] does not require us to do so, but we, the local officials, cannot argue.”
Yot said he remained loyal to Candlelight. “I will not join another party,” he said. “I would rather resign and stay home.”
Another elected official from Candlelight in the province, Doung commune chief Ping Sokhorn, said the anti-Rainsy letter was prepared by Prasat Balaing district authorities. Sokhorn said he and the other Doung councilors from Candlelight had already thumbprinted the document.
“They called me and asked me to make a commitment to serve the government, support the government and to follow the government,” he said. “I have to do so or I will be punished for disobeying the government’s order.”
Prasat Balaing district governor Vann Sophanit said there was no coercion, only “volunteering.”
He said all commune councilors from Candlelight in the district provided their thumbprints.
One letter seen by CamboJA and dated Wednesday shows endorsements by five councilors from Doung commune. The letter condemns Rainsy as a “third-generation traitor,” a phrase coined by Hun Sen, which has been used publicly by government bodies, Buddhist religious leaders and the military to censure Rainsy. The letter expresses support for Hun Sen in “destroying” his long-time opposition rival.
“We call on the authorities at all levels to take strong legal action against the third-generation traitor and his faction who joined in insulting the king,” the endorsed letter says. “We all strongly support Prime Minister Hun Sen in destroying the extremist, who is a third-generation traitor, to maintain the peace and harmony of the people.”