Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

NEC Rejects Rong Chhun’s Candidacy, Unionist to Withdraw From July Election

Rong Chhun marches with other activists from Phnom Penh to Pursat province calling for the release of political prisoners. February 1, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Rong Chhun marches with other activists from Phnom Penh to Pursat province calling for the release of political prisoners. February 1, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Candlelight Party leader Rong Chhun will not run as a candidate from Kandal province in the July election after an NEC spokesperson said the Justice Ministry had determined that the unionist was not legally rehabilitated from his 2021 incitement conviction.

Political parties completed registering candidates on Monday for the July 23 national election, with Candlelight Party saying it was facing bureaucratic obstacles from the National Election Committee (NEC) — the party does not have the required original copy of its registration from the Interior Ministry because it was lost following a raid on the party’s headquarters in 2017.

Additionally, the NEC on Monday asked the Justice Ministry to check if Chhun — a popular union leader and vice president of Candlelight — had been rehabilitated from the criminal justice system to run as a National Assembly candidate, a requirement based on the Law on Election of Members of the National Assembly. 

The ministry, in a letter released on Monday by Justice Minister Keut Rith, states that a person can be legally rehabilitated in two ways: by requesting a court or through automatic rehabilitation by law.

According to the Cambodian Criminal Procedures Code, a court can consider and grant rehabilitation in a misdemeanor case only if the application is made three years after the completion of the defendant’s prison sentence, as per Article 535, or after five years if they wish to use Article 541 to apply for automatic rehabilitation for a prison sentence under five years.

Chhun was arrested in 2020 for comments he made about the contentious border demarcation with Vietnam and sentenced to two years in prison for incitement, which is a misdemeanor. He was released in November 2021 after a high court suspended his prison sentence and placed him on probation for three years. 

“Based on the law above … Rong Chhun cannot yet be rehabilitated by law because five years have not expired from the date of serving his sentence,” the letter reads.

NEC spokesperson Hang Puthea on Tuesday also confirmed that Chhun cannot contest the upcoming election.

“In the case of Rong Chhun, he has not yet been rehabilitated from a [court conviction] so he cannot stand as a candidate,” he said.

Candlelight Party leaders submit candidate lists for the July national election at the NEC headquarters on May 7, 2023. (Candlelight Party’s Facebook)

Chhun’s candidacy in the Kandal list would have set up a direct contest against Prime Minister Hun Sen, who also runs from the same province. Hun Sen is likely contesting in his last election — as per previous predictions from him — and will likely hand over the prime ministership to Hun Manet, his son, who was handpicked in 2021 by his father to succeed him.

Reached on Tuesday, Chhun said his disqualification was “political” and not about rehabilitation because he was already recognized by the Interior Ministry as party vice president.

But, he had decided to withdraw his nomination to prevent affecting the party’s prospects in the July election.

“I will withdraw [my candidacy] to not affect the election list in Kandal province. I must be devoted to withdrawing myself … to be able for the Candlelight Party to contest the upcoming election,” he said.

Last year, the NEC had rejected entire lists of Candlelight candidates during the commune election last year, leaving 24 communes with no challenge to the ruling CPP.

Candlelight also faces an issue with its party registration document. The NEC requires an original copy for registering candidates, but the party says it does not have the original 1998 document registering Sam Rainsy Party, which was the first name of the party before it was changed in 2017.

After repeated requests and meetings with the Interior Ministry, the party was given a letter by the ministry on May 5 stating that it was a legal entity and registered at Interior Ministry, said Candlelight spokesperson Kimsour Phearith. 

Since the NEC was insisting on an original copy, Phearith said they would try to meet the Interior Ministry to get a duplicate of the 1998 registration document but that these bureaucratic hassles could be perceived by the public as an attempt to prevent the party from contesting the election.

“It is an intentional [obstacle] because in the past they didn’t do this,” Phearith said.