Opposition Candlelight Party gains steam in Cambodia in shadow of crackdown

The revival of the party tests government tolerance after a 2017 crackdown wiped out the opposition.
Opposition Candlelight Party gains steam in Cambodia in shadow of crackdown A recent gathering of Cambodia's Candlelight Party, in an undated photo.
Candlelight Party

A small opposition party in Cambodia is growing quickly and can present a challenge to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party in upcoming elections, activists told RFA.

The Candlelight Party, formerly known as the Sam Rainsy Party and the Khmer Nation party, was founded in 1995, and merged with other opposition forces to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2012.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017 in a move that allowed Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in Parliament in a July 2018 election. Sam Rainsy, 72, has lived in exile in France since 2015 and was sentenced in absentia last year to 25 years for what supporters say was a politically motivated charge of attempting to overthrow the government.

Ahead of the commune elections in June, the Candlelight Party’s Acting President Thach Setha told RFA’s Khmer Service that the party has established headquarters in every Cambodian province since it reactivated late last year and has built about 80-90% of its local infrastructure.

He said almost 90% of the CNRP’s members have joined Candlelight, which he added adheres to CNRP’s ideals. Most of the country’s youth are also joining the party, he said.

“I have been to all 25 provinces and municipalities. … The party’s popularity is higher than it was in 1995,” Thach Setha said. “People have sacrificed physically and emotionally, and they have even contributed their resources as well.”

Thach Setha said the ruling Cambodian People’s Party is concerned over the rising popularity of the opposition, although the Candlelight Party has not said whether it will compete in the upcoming elections.

CPP’s Sok Ey San told RFA that it does not consider Candlelight a competitor. He also disputed the idea that it is gaining political ground, although he acknowledged the CPP has urged Candlelight members to switch sides.  

“Nothing is wrong when we convince other parties’ members to defect to our party. It is wrong if we intimidate them to join us,” Sok Ey San said.

Prominent activist and president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, Rong Chhun, has endorsed the Candlelight Party in a statement and urged his supporters to do the same.

Boycott call

In an interview with RFA, Rong Chhun said Candlelight is an alternative to the Cambodia National Rescue Party while it fights for reinstatement to participate in elections. If that happens, the two parties could join forces, he said.

“If we wait for the CNRP to be reinstated it will be too late for the upcoming elections. We must do something to compete in the elections,” Rong Chhun said.  

He added however that he himself won’t join the Candlelight Party, despite his endorsement.  

Lawyer and activist Theary Seng, however, told RFA call that she does not support the Candlelight Party or other parties competing in elections organized by the ruling party because that would legitimize a "rigged" process.

“You can’t win," she told an RFA Khmer Service call-in show. She urged parties to "boycott the elections," in 2022 while using Cambodia's status as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to draw world attention to its political crisis at home.

"Don’t join the [election] process until we can resume normal political activism after 2022," said the Cambodia-American lawyer, who is among more 50 supporters and members of the CNRP on trial for conspiracy to commit treason and incitement of social unrest.

The revived Candlelight Party has faced harassment at local levels by CPP officials.

Authorities in the northwestern province of Battambang ordered the Candlelight Party to remove a sign from a citizen’s house last week, in spite of the fact that Cambodia’s Minister of Interior Sar Kheng recently asked local officials to allow political parties to act freely without political and partisan discrimination.

Although Candlelight officials informed local authorities about the sign, they still stopped the villager from putting it up and threatened him, the Candlelight Party’s Director Pho Sovantha told RFA, who said that authorities were trying to prevent competition in elections.

This isn’t the first time a sign has been targeted by local authorities. RFA reported in mid-January that governmental officials ordered the removal of a Candlelight Party advertisement from a public road in central Tboung Khmum province.

Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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