Cambodia’s Hun Sen ramps up efforts to bring political opponents to heel

Facebook commentator, provincial party officials latest to be targeted in efforts to gain ruling party support.
By RFA Khmer
Cambodia’s Hun Sen ramps up efforts to bring political opponents to heel Supporters of the Candlelight Party shout slogans from a vehicle during a rally on the last day of campaigning for the commune elections in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, June 3, 2022.

UPDATED at 9:15 A.M. EST on 03-01-2023

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is continuing efforts to compel political opposition figures to back his ruling Cambodian People’s Party ahead of general elections in July.

Activists from the Candlelight Party — the main challenger to the ruling party — say authorities are defacing and stealing party signs and billboards, and police are monitoring their meetings. Candlelight Party activists in almost all provinces have reported cases of intimidation and harassment, party spokesman Kim Sour Phirith said. 

Police and local authorities have threatened those who join the party, saying they will take away their state-issued poverty cards that allow struggling families to collect about 176,000 riels, or U.S. $43 per month, to buy dry food ingredients and products with long shelf lives.

Su Yean, deputy chairman of the party’s executive committee in Tbong Khmum province, said authorities directly and indirectly threatened him and others amid an increase of harassment of the party’s leaders and activists in February. 

“It is a scheme to discourage the public and Candlelight Party grassroots leaders not to carry out any activities to support the party,” Su Yean said.

‘Not a good son’

Additionally, Prime Minister Hun Sen has lately directed his attention toward Sorn Dara, a prominent political commentator on social media who is now living in exile in France and seeking asylum there. 

Thousands of viewers watch Sorn Dara’s talk shows on Facebook during which he routinely attacks Hun Sen and calls for his removal from office.

Speaking at a graduation ceremony at the Royal University of Phnom Penh on Friday, Hun Sen told the crowd that Sorn Dara, whose father is a military officer and a longtime Hun Sen supporter, was not a good son because he didn’t listen to his parents.

“You insult your parents to whom you owe gratitude saying they have less education than you,” he said. “Your parents gave birth to you. You still look down on them. How about the regular people? If you don’t recognize your parents, then you are not human.”

Sorn Dara, a prominent Cambodian political commentator who is seeking asylum in France, hosts a talk show on Facebook. Credit: Sorn Dara/Facebook
Sorn Dara, a prominent Cambodian political commentator who is seeking asylum in France, hosts a talk show on Facebook. Credit: Sorn Dara/Facebook
Sorn Dara’s parents appeared in a short video last week posted by the pro-government Fresh News, saying they had severed ties with their son because he didn’t listen to them.

His father, Col. Sok Sunnareth, deputy chief of staff of the Kampong Speu Provincial Operations Area and a ruling party working group official, publicly implored his son on Feb. 22 to stop criticizing Hun Sen and his government, according to a Khmer Times report. 

Sorn Dara is a former official of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, or the CNRP, which was dissolved by the country’s Supreme Court in November 2017. He said his father disowned him that same year because he had refused to join the CPP.  

Parents held ‘hostage’

“My parents support for the Cambodian People’s Party is a fact,” Sorn Dara told Radio Free Asia on Monday. “However, the fact that he came forward and attacked his own son is not true.” 

He went on to say that his father’s criticism of him “was inspired by threats and intimidation” that amounted to his family being held “hostage” by Hun Sen and his government. 

“My parents are not politicians,” Sorn Dara said. “If you [Hun Sen] want to target me, go ahead with me, but not my parents. … This is an inhuman act, a crime against humanity and an act of terrorism.”      

Ros Sotha, executive director of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 22 local NGOs, said Hun Sen is targeting Sorn Dara because he is very influential.

“This will dilute Hun Sen’s popularity,” he said. “Hun Sen worries about it.”  

For nearly four decades, Hun Sen has used repressive measures, including violence, arrests,  detentions and lawsuits to keep the political opposition at bay so he can remain in power, especially before elections. 

Before the last general election in 2018, Cambodia's Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 of its members from participating in political activities for five years. Now, in the run-up to the July election, Hun Sen and his party are targeting the Candlelight Party. 

‘Threatening to a high level’

Khem Monikosal, Candlelight’s president in Pailin province, told RFA on Monday that party members have been photographed while attending meetings. Authorities also warned that they would confiscate the poverty cards of those who own the homes where the meetings take place, he said.

Up to now, police have refused to accept party complaints that commune authorities and unidentified men stole and destroyed their signs, he said.

“This situation is threatening to a high level, and it is my concern, and all colleagues in this Candlelight Party, especially activists at the grassroots level, are concerned about their safety after coming under more pressure and oppression at the grassroots level,” Khem Monikosal said.

Election watchdogs urged Candlelight Party members and activists to collect evidence of political persecution and submit complaints to the Ministry of Interior, which governs the country’s police.  

RFA could not reach Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak for comment.

Hun Sen, 70, has also tried to lure political opposition and environmental activists to the side of the ruling party by offering them government positions.

RFA recently reported that environmental workers and opposition party members were being offered government jobs by the CPP as a way to weaken any competition ahead of the general elections. At least eight activists have recently joined the ruling party and have taken government positions.

Similarly, Hun Sen publicly offered government jobs to staff members of the recently shuttered Voice of Democracy, saying they could apply for positions without taking the required civil service exam. His government revoked the operating license of the independent media outlet earlier this month, leaving Cambodia with no independent source of news.

Translated by Sok Ry Sum and Samean Yun for RFA Khmer. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Matt Reed.

The story was updated to say that authorities warned that they would confiscate the poverty cards of those who own the homes where the meetings take place.


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