Dozens more activists and opposition party members have joined the ruling Cambodian People’s Party against a backdrop of targeted violence as July elections approach.
Ten detained CNRP members and activists apologized to Prime Minister Hun Sen, confessing what they said were their mistakes, in a video published by government-aligned media Fresh News on May 6.
One CNRP activist, Kong Mas, had been convicted to a five-year prison sentence in December 2022 for unsuccessful efforts to help former CNRP vice president Mu Sochua return to Cambodia in January 2021.
“I appreciated that Samdech [Hun Sen] intervened and released me to meet my family, I will be a good citizen and will not repeat the same mistakes as when I followed the path of the opposition party,” Mas said in the Fresh News clip.
Mas was granted a royal pardon by King Norodom Sihamoni the same day.
“No one has threatened me, I left the party] because opposition party leaders have never taken care of activists being detained in prison,” Mas told CamboJA Wednesday. “The important thing is that I wanted freedom to meet my wife and children.”
Other recent defections include former CNRP Kandal provincial lawmaker Tok Vanchan, former Khmer Win Party leader Soung Sophorn and Candlelight’s Ratanakiri deputy chief Thoeun Bunthorn and his wife Hing Sokha, who had been leading the Candlelightwomen’s movement in the province.
“I disliked the leadership of the Candlelight Party, that’s why I decided to leave the Candlelight,” Bunthorn said in the clip. “I was imprisoned, and you [Candlelight leaders] have not visited me often, it was very painful…you only take care of your family, you never considered my family.”
Sophorn said that he defected to the CPP because the opposition party had become splintered and lacked the influence to lead the country.
“It’s time for myself to close the opposition chapter and to work with the government because I have been advocating for 10 years so far,” he said. “I have seen they [the opposition parties] have no new strategy to challenge the Cambodian People’s Party.”
He added that another reason to change his mind after seeing that CPP has restructured to have “the future of prime minister” provide opportunities to work with the government.
Sophorn was promoted on 30 April to secretary of state at the Office of Council Minister after defecting with the ruling CPP. He resigned as president of the Khmer Win Party this week.
Candlelight spokesperson Kimsour Phearith said the party remained committed to moving forward.
“We are not worried because the defections always happen near elections and people who are leaving are small in numbers,” he said.“It is a tried and true [CPP strategy] because some activists had been lobbied and some activists have refused to leave.”
The threat of violence has also loomed in the backdrop for those continuing to openly oppose the ruling CPP. In the past few months, Human Rights Watch reported more than half dozen apparently targeted attacks by anonymous men in black against members of the opposition party.
Another prominent Candlelight activist to defect to the CPP was influencer Thy Sokha, who had alleged on her Facebook page “Pey Pey Ly” that she was targeted in an assassination attempt disguised as a traffic accident in April. Sokha declined to comment to CamboJA.
The ruling CPP has been proactive but not always successful in courting opposition and critics.
Environmental activist Hun Vannak said that he and his wife Chhoeun Daravy, an activist with human rights group Khmer Thavrak, had been called for discussions with CPP leaders but denied joining the ruling party.
A photo had circulated on social media of Vannak with Hun Sen in March, but Vannak said the meeting was to improve environmental and human rights for the people of Areng Valley and the Oral wildlife sanctuary, not a political negotiation.
“Yes, they have tried to negotiate with us to join [CPP] one or two times and we can’t join because some conditions were not reached in agreement,” Vannak said. He declined to elaborate on the negotiations.
Vannak and eight activists will be scheduled for a hearing at the Supreme Court on May 19, over the incitement was convicted by Phnom Penh Court in 2021 for arranging protests in support of the jail unionist Rong Chhun.
Political analyst Em Sovannara views the defections as a boost to the CPP but noted that loyal CPP members may be disheartened to not receive promotions while recent additions to the party receive high-level promotions.
“It is positive for the ruling party to garner a lot of support but the party itself may face a let-down among its own politicians because people inside the [CPP] have done a lot of work but may not get the same promotions,” he said.