Cambodia’s government on Thursday doubled down on threats to prosecute anyone calling for a boycott of this year’s general election, after the country’s now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) told supporters to avoid the polls because it had been banned from participating.
Organizing a boycott of Cambodia’s July 29 election is in direct violation of the country’s electoral laws and will be dealt with in court, interior minister and vice president of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) Sar Kheng said during the inauguration of a new administrative building in Pursat province.
“Any appeal for civil servants and citizens to vote is appropriate in accordance with the spirit of the Constitution of Cambodia and the law on the election of MPs [members of parliament],” Sar Kheng said.
“In contrast, those who appeal, incite, or prevent citizens from going to vote to elect their MPs for the sixth legislature, are committing acts in violation of the constitution and the law on election of MPs.”
Sar Kheng’s threats came after Ministry of Interior spokesperson Khieu Sopheak warned over the weekend of “legal action” against former CNRP officials, who have urged supporters to avoid legitimizing the election after their party was shut down by the Supreme Court in November for allegedly plotting to topple the government and prohibited from taking part in the vote.
Khieu Sopheak told local media at the time that the legal action would include the seizure of assets, and said such a move would be justified because the former officials are no longer residing in the country.
Legal experts have said that calling for a boycott of an election is not illegal in Cambodia and that assets cannot be seized if they are not the proceeds of criminal activity.
Several CNRP officials and activists have fled Cambodia since the party was banned and are currently living in self-imposed exile to avoid facing cases widely seen as politically motivated and tried in a court system beholden to the CPP.
In December Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC)—the nation’s top electoral body—warned of 5-20 million-riel fines (U.S. $1,240-$4,950) and “other criminal punishment” for those “sowing distrust of the election” after RFA’s Khmer Service reported on low turnout for voter registration following the dissolution of the CNRP.
CNRP deputy president Eng Chhay Eang on Thursday dismissed Sar Kheng’s comments as “paying lip service” to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who seeks a mandate to continue his more than three-decade rule of the country, and said that neither the constitution nor the law on the election of members of parliament include clauses that call for the punishment of those who appeal for a boycott.
“Punishments are only provided for those who prevent [people from voting] or incite [them not to vote],” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“We are simply calling upon citizens to use their peaceful and legal rights, so there is nothing wrong with such an appeal. It should be those who employ tactics of intimidation against our citizens through various means, such as threatening people who do not vote … that are found in violation of the law.”
Hun Sen has repeatedly urged Cambodians to show up for the ballot and, earlier this month, senior CPP official and National AIDS Authority chairman Ieng Mouly was quoted by government-aligned Fresh News media as saying that non-voters “love dictators,” adding that those whose fingers are not stained with voting ink at the end of the election will be easily identified as “guerillas” and “traitors.”
“Cambodian citizens will not be intimidated by this … [and] on July 29, they will express their will by not going to vote,” Eng Chhay Eang added.
“As for those who employ threats, doing so is part of their culture, as they are used to a communist and dictatorial mindset,” he said, noting that some among Cambodia’s current leadership, including Hun Sen, were formerly soldiers under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Meanwhile, Tioulong Saumura, the wife of former CNRP President Sam Rainsy, failed to appear in court in the capital Phnom Penh for questioning on Thursday related to charges that she had helped to establish the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM) as a way around a ban on the opposition party.
The government views the CNRM as an illegal movement and Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy prosecutor Sieng Sok on March 30 summoned Tioulong Saumura and five other senior CNRM members and founders to testify over the movement’s formation.
Tioulong Saumura, Sam Rainsy and Eng Chhay Eang—who are all living in self-imposed exile from Cambodia—have failed to appear at the court. Ho Vann, Nuth Rumduol and To Vannchan, have been ordered to appear next week.
Neither Tioulong Somura nor Sam Rainsy could be reached by RFA for comment about their summonses.
Eng Chhay Eang told RFA on Thursday that the Cambodia’s judicial system, “especially the courts, are institutions under Hun Sen’s power” and lack independence from the ruling party, so he and other CNRM members “don’t find it necessary” to attend the hearings.
“If we were to confront them, or testify at the court—which is widely known as being under Hun Sen’s control—they will imprison us and undertake other harmful acts against us,” he said.
“So regardless of what they are doing, that’s their business. We are taking care of our own business, so as to ensure change in Cambodia.”
When asked what agenda the CNRM is pursuing in Cambodia, Eng Chhay Eang said the movement is primarily focused on getting voters to boycott the election in July.
“We know that the electoral laws and Cambodia’s constitution do not require our citizens to vote, so they will use their right to boycott the polls during this fake election process,” he said.
The CNRM will also organize Cambodians living abroad to call on the international community not to recognize the results of the election, he added.
“These are actions that we need to carry out together, so as to ensure genuine change in the near future,” he said.
Amid Hun Sen’s crackdown on the political opposition, both the U.S. and EU have withdrawn donor support for Cambodia’s elections, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy in the country.
Last week, the U.S. State Department decried the Cambodian government’s decision to prohibit the CNRP from participating in the national elections, saying it would prevent “millions of Cambodian voters from exercising their democratic right to vote for candidates of their choice” and had “[called] into question the integrity of the electoral process.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.