Opposition commune councilors in southern Cambodia’s Kep province are facing increasing pressure from local authorities to defect to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), they said Tuesday, including through 24-hour surveillance and restrictions on their freedom of movement.
Nun Dara, the head of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in Kep, told RFA’s Khmer Service that since Cambodia’s Supreme Court ruled on Nov. 16 that the CNRP be dissolved for its part in an alleged plot to topple the government, police officers and “unidentified men” have repeatedly harassed him and other local opposition officials who have refused to join the CPP.
“It has become routine now that we are under surveillance all the time,” he said.
“When two or three of us meet, we are closely watched. We are now restricted from our political life. We have been persecuted badly and we have been treated as traitors since our party was dissolved.”
Nun Dara said that some of his fellow CNRP officials have confined themselves to their homes, while others have joined the more than half of CNRP lawmakers—including deputy presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang and a number of party activists—who have fled Cambodia fearing retaliation by the CPP following electoral gains by the opposition in June’s commune ballot.
“Our movement is badly restricted, and only our officials who have fled to foreign countries can enjoy their freedom of speech,” he said.
“Even when I am at a café, I am monitored.”
The Kep CNRP chief claimed that none of the elected opposition officials in his province have defected to the CPP and that, by refusing to do so, they had become the focus of an intensifying campaign by the ruling party.
Nun Dara said that he and the other CNRP officials in Kep are concerned for their safety and urged local authorities to end their intimidation and threats.
Luon Savath, an award-winning rights activist known as the “multimedia monk,” echoed Nun Dara’s concerns about harassment of the opposition by security personnel, who he said were being used as a tool by the ruling party.
He said police and local officials have been “deployed across much of the country” to monitor CNRP members who have refused to join the CPP after the opposition was dissolved.
“It is very bad that police officers, who are supposed to be neutral, abuse their power by persecuting the opposition and serving the ruling party,” he said.
Members of the Buddhist monastic community who are known to be sympathetic to the CNRP have also faced harassment, Luon Savath added.
Attempts by RFA to contact Kep province police chief Ing Samol and Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak for comment on the reports of abuse went unanswered Tuesday.
CNRP officials in other provinces have also reported harassment by local authorities demanding that they defect to the CPP.
Immediately following last month’s decision to dissolve the CNRP, Prime Minister Hun Sen posted a video clip to his Facebook account urging opposition lawmakers and officials to take advantage of “a very rare opportunity … to join the CPP,” and threatening them with “legal action” if they refused.
The prime minister had set Nov. 26 as the date of a third and final ultimatum by which members of the opposition were to have switched party affiliation in order to keep the jobs for which they had been elected in June.
Last week, CNRP officials told RFA that out of a total of 5,007 opposition members elected to commune posts earlier this year, around 200 have now joined the CPP in order to keep their jobs, while pro-government media put the figure at a number about 10 times higher.
Also on Tuesday, villagers from Sre Kor commune, in Stung Treng province’s Sesan district, told RFA they no longer have local officials who will help represent their interests in a compensation dispute over the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam project, now that the CNRP commune chief and two commune councilors have been removed from their positions following the dissolution of the party.
A July 15 shutdown of floodgates on the U.S. $781 million project located on Mekong River tributaries in Stung Treng has sent water levels rising in Sre Kor and nearby Kbal Romeas commune following government appeals to residents to relocate to other areas.
Hundreds of residents have already accepted compensation plans offered to them by the government and project managers to move, but nearly 150 families remain, saying they do not want to abandon their ancestors’ tombs or the place they have called home for generations.
On Tuesday, Sre Kor villager Sean Rith said that most residents feel the decision to remove the three CNRP officials and replace them with CPP members was “unreasonable,” and called for their reinstatement.
Sre Kor commune chief Seak Mekong said he can longer assist his constituents and called the decision to remove him from office “an insult” to those who elected him in the June commune vote.
Replacing him was “illegal” according to Cambodia’s constitution, he added, saying his mandate is to serve as commune chief for five years.
“The move goes against the will of the people and it’s utterly improper to remove elected commune officials arbitrarily,” he said.
“Villagers who are affected by the dam project rely so heavily on our help to advocate for their rights and concerns, but they are now helpless. For the sake of the nation, I wish to call on Hun Sen to reconsider his actions so that no one gets hurt.”
As a result of ongoing floodgate tests at Sesan 2, water levels in Sre Kor are expected eventually to rise to about 220 feet (67 meters). A local bridge connecting Sre Kor to main roads, along with a few roads in Kbal Romeas where the dam is located, are now flooded, villagers told RFA in earlier reports.
Sorn Chey, the executive director of the Cambodia-based Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, said it remains to be seen how effective the new commune chiefs and councilors who are handpicked to replace elected CNRP officials will work to help address local concerns.
“We will see how the officials from the ruling party can help address the issues in the community which have existed for a very long time,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.