Approximately 200 of Candlelight Party’s 2,000 commune councilors signed a petition condemning opposition leader Sam Rainsy, but only under coercion from local authorities, said Candlelight vice president Thach Setha.
“Those who are in fear agreed to thumbprint [the petition],” Setha said. The party is still receiving reports of coercive actions in some provinces, such as Kampong Speu and Prey Veng, he added.
“Authorities continued to call the commune councilors of the Candlelight Party to meetings and ask them to thumbprint [the petition],” Setha said. “We are still monitoring the issue because we have already established our position.”
On Thursday, Candlelight issued a statement calling for an end to intimidation of its commune councilors and denying any affiliation with Rainsy.
Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned Candlelight that it could face dissolution over affiliations with Rainsy and called for Candlelight members to condemn Rainsy for allegedly insulting the King.
Setha said Candlelight was already in a difficult situation due to a defamation lawsuit brought against the party’s vice president, Son Chhay, by the ruling CPP and National Election Committee (NEC).
Earlier this month, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered Chhay, a former Sam Rainsy Party official, to pay the CPP 3 billion riel ($750,000) in damages, after finding him guilty of defamation for claiming that voter fraud occurred during the June commune elections.
“This is a threat to make us not dare to protest the election results, so we have to follow them, but we are not afraid, we will continue,” Setha said. “It is really difficult for the party because they always link us to [Rainsy] and it is unfair.”
Sroy Sokhorn, a Khpab commune councilor in Kandal province’s Sa’ang district, said that he and two other Candlelight councilors refused when district authorities convened a meeting requesting all councilors to thumbprint the petition.
“We did not do so because Prime Minister Hun Sen already accepted the Candlelight Party’s statement,” he said, adding that the authorities were no longer pressuring him.
CPP’s spokesperson Sok Eysan claimed the Candlelight Party’s challenges stemmed from its own wrongdoing, not CPP oppression.
“It depends on their actions and activities…it is not caused by the ruling party,” Eysan said. “For example, in Son Chhay’s case, he committed a crime that damaged the honor and dignity of the NEC and the Cambodian People’s Party.”
Eysan said that condemning Sam Rainsy is the duty of all people, and is not a matter of coercion.
“This is the duty of all citizens, including the commune councilors, who are also responsible for the nation, religion and the king,” he said. “If you refuse [to condemn], it means that you are joining a traitor.”
Political analyst Em Sovannara said that forcing Candlelight’s members to condemn Rainsy was a part of the CPP’s strategy to weaken Candlelight before next year’s national elections.
“First, the ruling party can mobilize members of the Candlelight Party to defect to the CPP,” he said. “Second, [it can] reduce the influence this party has gained from supporters through the influence of Sam Rainsy.”
Correction: The article originally referred to a statement issued by the Candlelight Party on Friday last week. The statement was issued on Thursday.