A Candlelight Party youth organizer in Phnom Penh was buying a coffee on April 6 when two men in black sped towards him on a motorbike and pulled out a metal baton, striking him on the shoulder.
As the organizer attempted to flee in his car, the attackers returned and threw a stone, shattering the window.
The organizer recalled that he had submitted a letter to Phnom Penh municipal authorities the week before, notifying them of a gathering calling for the release of political prisoners. The request had been rejected.
While the Candlelight organizer’s plans for the gathering moved ahead, his anonymous attacker pointed a finger at him and shouted “Kill you!”
The case is one of at least seven acts of violence — four involving attackers on motorbikes — against six opposition members since January, Human Rights Watch reported Monday. The NGO directly interviewed four victims of the attacks, who have been cut, beaten and verbally threatened.
Five Candlelight Party members, including three victims of earlier assaults, visited the UN human rights office in Phnom Penh on March 20. A week later, one of the members who had joined the victims was in front of his home when he heard someone say “Is it him?” Then, he was slashed in the head.
He turned around to see two men, one of them holding “a large metal blade,” HRW reported. The wound required thirteen stitches. He reported the incident to local police but HRW said he did not publicize the attack because he feared further retaliation.
The UN’s Phnom Penh representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Two Candlelight spokespersons confirmed to CamboJA there had been violence against party members and added there had been an additional assault more recently. Spokesperson Kimsuor Phirith said the party had already shared details of the attacks to local police.
“We have done it all,” Phirith said. “We have submitted complaints to authorities, we cooperated with them to provide information — where and when. As for the result, they just accept the complaints, but so far the investigation to find out who caused it, that has not yet been seen.”
Phnom Penh Police spokesperson San Sok Seyha did not respond to requests for comment.
The reported attacks came in the months after Prime Minister Hun Sen warned of violence against opponents. In a January 9 speech, he offered the remaining opposition a choice of legal action or physical assault.
“I want to ask you, there are only two ways: one is the legal system, another one, the stick,” he said. “Which one do you prefer?”
Candlelight’s Phirith said he did not pay attention to Hun Sen’s speech, but called for all parties and politicians to work together peacefully.
“Do not retaliate, do not use violence and resentment to defeat the opponent,” Phirith said. “And I think if we can do that and tolerate each other, Cambodians will be united better than ever.”
Yet opposition members continue to face both legal action and physical violence. The attacks appeared to target the victims as attackers waited to identify them before assaults, HRW reported.
“That’s the one!” cried a man holding an “extendable metal baton” on March 18, before he smacked one Candlelight member leaving a party meeting around noon on March 18.
The assailants struck him with a baton five times before he fell to the ground. He suffered severe bruising on his forearm and chest, HRW reported.
On the morning of April 8, a Candlelight Party member was driving to work in Phnom Penh when two men in black with covered faces struck him with a metal baton. The Candlelight party member ran away but was chased down by the baton wielding man and hit five more times, leaving welts across his body.
The Candlelight Party member told Human Rights Watch he believed the attack was retaliation for joining an April 7 party gathering in Phnom Penh.
Thirteen political activists connected to the now-defunct Cambodia National Heart Party have been imprisoned on what Human Rights Watch described as “politically motivated charges.” In April, four Candlelight Party members, two of whom held elected office, were detained on charges of forgery.
While the identity of the assailants remains unclear, Human Rights Watch alleged the CPP was behind the attacks.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen is using every repressive tool at his disposal to rid Cambodia of any political opposition ahead of the July elections,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director. “Foreign governments should send a clear public message that dismantling opposition parties and disqualifying, assaulting, and arresting their members before election day means that there won’t be any real election at all.”
CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan did not respond to requests for comment.
On March 16, just before many of the reported attacks against Candlelight members, the European Union parliament passed a resolution urging the Cambodian government to release political prisoners and activists and cease intimidation of opposition members. The EU warned that further suspension of Cambodia’s ‘Everything but Arms’ status may occur “if the 2023 elections deviate from international standards or violations of human rights continue.”
“[We] call on the authorities to put an end to all forms of harassment, intimidation and politically motivated criminal charges against members of the opposition,” the parliament’s resolution said. “Allo[w] all political parties to carry out equal, free and transparent electoral campaigns under a more inclusive and transparent national election committee.”
The German, Japanese and U.S. embassies told CamboJA they were also following Cambodian elections closely and remained in dialogue with the Cambodian government to improve the political environment.
“The United States has and will continue to urge Cambodian authorities to strengthen multiparty democracy by allowing opposing political views, fostering competition through free and fair elections, promoting the open exchange of ideas, and allowing civil society and the media to operate freely, without the fear of violence,” U.S. Embassy spokesperson Stephanie Arzate said in a statement.