Five opposition commune councilors who have gone into hiding since Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved their party in November said Tuesday that they will not return home amid ongoing pressure to defect to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Hun Sen’s government arrested opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Kem Sokha in September on charges of “treason,” and two months later the Supreme Court ruled to disband his party for allegedly planning a “rebellion” with backing from Washington, essentially eliminating any challenge to the CPP ahead of votes this year.
At the end of November, the National Assembly reallocated the CNRP’s parliamentary seats to the ruling party and three government-aligned political parties, while the CNRP’s elected local officials have been pressured to defect to the CPP or lose their positions.
On Tuesday, Chak Botha, a CNRP councilor from Battambang province’s Prek Jich commune, told RFA’s Khmer Service that he and four other opposition commune councilors from Battambang who had gone into hiding following the decision to dissolve their party will not return home while ruling party activists continue “demanding that we defect to the CPP.”
Chak Botha said that he and the other councilors “fear for our safety” and would rather keep their families in a “secure area,” than go back to their communes, where they are routinely hounded by the CPP.
“I will never serve the CPP, because the party has no intention to solve the problems of the people,” he said.
“I would rather stand with the people than defect. The people are still suffering social injustice.”
The five councilors “dare not go to work or conduct any business,” he added, saying that most of them now depend on their family members working in Thailand for financial support.
Prek Jich commune’s ruling party councilor Muol Pin dismissed Cham Botha’s claims, saying the opposition members in hiding are simply “paranoid.”
“The local authorities have no problem with them and has repeatedly called on them to return home,” he said.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen used to appeal to them to defect to the CPP, but they refused, so we no longer have any bearing on their decision.”
Luon Savath, an award-winning rights activist known as the “multimedia monk,” told RFA that CPP political harassment and threats against members of the CNRP had created an environment of fear in Cambodia.
“No one wants to leave their house and hometown, but the political situation has forced these CNRP officials to go into hiding,” he said.
Luon Savath urged the two main political parties to end attacks and respect one another for the sake of the national interest.
Also on Tuesday, the Supreme Court announced that on Jan. 10 it will hear an appeal by social and political commentator Kim Sok of his conviction on charges of defamation and incitement to cause social disorder.
Kim Sok was jailed on Feb. 17 after Hun Sen accused him of implying that the CPP had orchestrated the July 2016 murder of popular political pundit Kem Ley, though Kim Sok said that he had only been repeating what many Cambodians believe.
On Aug. 10, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced him to 18 months in prison on the charges and ordered him to pay 800 million riels (U.S. $200,000) to Hun Sen and 8 million riels (U.S. $2,000) to the state, sums that his brother has said his family will be unable to pay.
Kem Ley was shot dead in broad daylight on July 10, 2016, when he stopped in a convenience store beside a gas station in Phnom Penh.
Though authorities charged a former soldier with the murder, many in Cambodia don’t believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed by the man over a debt.
Just days before he was gunned down, Kem Ley had discussed on an RFA Khmer Service call-in show a report by London-based Global Witness detailing the extent of the wealth of the family of Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades.
Rights groups accuse Cambodia’s judiciary of lacking independence and say the government seeks to limit freedom of expression by using the courts to level defamation charges at reporters and critics of the ruling party.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.