(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government has stepped up harassment and arbitrary arrests of members and activists from the opposition Candlelight Party (CLP) ahead of national elections slated for July 23, 2023, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should stop targeting the opposition, immediately drop all baseless charges, and release all those wrongfully detained.
The upcoming election bears little resemblance to an actual democratic process since the National Election Committee determined in May that the main opposition party, the Candlelight Party, cannot take part in the elections on concocted administrative grounds, Human Rights Watch said. On June 23, the all-ruling-party National Assembly voted unanimously to amend the election law to penalize anyone who boycotts the election from running as a candidate in future elections. Prospective candidates must have voted in at least two elections to qualify as a candidate in elections at the local and national levels. The amendments also criminalized advocating boycotting an election or deliberately spoiling a ballot.
“The Cambodian government has declared open season on Candlelight Party leaders and members using bogus and abusive criminal charges,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Even though the Candlelight Party has been barred on dubious grounds from the July national election, the authorities still view them as a threat and are suppressing them.”
Tithia Sum, a Candlelight Party member and United States citizen, fled Cambodia on July 5 after receiving notice of an arrest warrant against him. The Interior Ministry notice, issued on May 11, seeks Immigration Department cooperation to “blacklist” him from entering Cambodia. It states that he was charged with using Facebook from 2020 to 2022 to “insult the king and … incite social unrest in Cambodia” under the charge of lese majeste, which carries a prison term of up to five years and fine of up to US$2,500.
The Candlelight Party nominated Tithia as a parliamentary candidate in Battambang province before the election committee barred the party from offering candidates in the July elections. The charges against Tithia appeared to be politically motivated to keep him from running for a parliamentary seat.
In the early morning of July 7, Thai police in civilian clothes arrested Thol Samnang, a Candlelight Party youth leader, while he was on his way to the office of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Bangkok. He had fled Cambodia on July 4 after evading police who had surrounded his home in Kandal for two days seeking to detain him without a warrant. In the weeks leading up to his arrest, Samnang had posted criticisms of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) on Facebook and called for voters to spoil their ballots to protest the election.
When asked about the basis for Samnang’s arrest, the Cambodia National Police spokesperson, Chhay Kimkhoeun, stated: “You do not have to ask about that. Just look at his [Facebook] messages, he was arrested because of that.” Samnang is currently seeking political asylum in Thailand and is being held at an immigration detention center in Bangkok.
On July 13, Khem Monykosal, head of the CLP Operational Committee in Pailin, fled Cambodia due to fears of arrest. Monykosal told Human Rights Watch that on June 9, ruling party officials in Pailin asked him on four separate occasions to “surrender to the Cambodia People’s Party.” He alleged that those officials gave him the option of being reinstated in a government job, or facing legal action from two pending court cases. After Monykosal refused the offer, local police, accompanied by Interior Ministry police, raided his home in Phnom Penh on July 11 without a warrant. Police reportedly left a handwritten note that said a mobile phone was taken on the prosecutor’s orders. Monykosal is seeking refuge and fears for his safety.
On July 14, police detained a Candlelight Party national steering committee member, Ly Ry, and the acting Phnom Penh party chief, Bun Kat. A senior government official confirmed the arrests were related to the posting of a voice message promoting a plan to destroy ballots. The authorities charged both with incitement for urging people to destroy their ballots. Bun Kat subsequently posted a public apology video on the pro-government news site Fresh News.
On July 17, the CLP Facebook account posted a report that police that afternoon had arrested two of their members, the Tbong Khmum provincial party chief Eng Sroy, and the head of the party’s women’s movement, Vong Runy. An arrest warrant issued on July 17 indicates that the two are charged with “incitement to commit and create social chaos [to elections] in 2023” under articles 494 and 495 of the Cambodian criminal code. A Candlelight Party spokesperson confirmed their arrests and provided a statement calling for their release.
Camboja News reported that the authorities had fined 17 opposition party members and banned them from holding elected office for at least 20 years after being convicted in absentia for inciting voters to spoil their national election ballots. They included 6 former lawmakers from a dissolved opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party: Sam Rainsy, Mu Sochua, Long Ry, Nuth Romdul, Hou Vann, Kong Saphea, and Eng Chhai Eang; and 11 activists, including Seng Mengbunrong and Chham Chhany.
Camboja News also reported that in Kampong Cham, the provincial election committee fined a Candlelight official, Ly Menghorng, 10 million riel ($2,400) and banned him from running for election for the next 10 years. Hang Puthea, the spokesperson of the government’s National Election Committee, said that Menghorng posted a comment on July 1 calling for people to spoil ballots to “provide justice for ourselves and compatriots” through a Facebook account called Vanrith Ly.
The National Election Committee issued a statement on July 11 that the recently passed election law amendment can be interpreted to include a 20 million riel (US$ 5,000) fine for calling for people to spoil their ballot. The interpretation appears to be in response to calls on social media to spoil ballots as a way to protest the single party election following the committee’s decision to bar the Candlelight Party from contesting in the elections.
Hun Sen has touted vote totals that show a high voter turnout as an important indicator of political legitimacy, Human Rights Watch said. In 2018, the Cambodia People’s Party threatened legal action against opposition party members who called for voters to boycott the national election.
Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a state party, states that “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity … To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors; To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.”
On June 16, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, said he was deeply concerned by the curtailing of civic space ahead of the election. He stated that “ahead of the election, there must be an open and pluralistic environment that guarantees the rights to freedom of expression and opinion, and freedom of assembly and association,” and urged the Cambodian government to swiftly enable and protect a conducive environment for a free and fair general election.
“The Cambodian government has taken away the right of many Cambodians to vote for the party of their choice, and they have a right to express their opinions about that,” Robertson said. “The National Assembly’s last minute amendments to the Election Law blatantly violate rights and should be rescinded, and charges dropped against those who urged voters to boycott the polls or spoil their ballots.”