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Cambodia govt renews attacks on opposition ahead of poll

Jailed activist Theary Seng, who edits Khmer edition of the Bible, has resumed her hunger strike

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen shows indelible ink on his finger after casting his vote at a polling station during local commune elections in Kandal province on June 5, 2022

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen shows indelible ink on his finger after casting his vote at a polling station during local commune elections in Kandal province on June 5, 2022. (Photo: AFP/ UCAN files)

Published: July 20, 2023 10:18 AM GMT

Updated: July 20, 2023 12:18 PM GMT

Human rights groups have accused the Cambodian government of stepping up a campaign of harassment and intimidation against opposition politicians ahead of the July 23 national election which is expected to be won easily by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, urged authorities to 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 (CLP), cannot take part in the elections on concocted administrative grounds,” he said.

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He said Tithia Sum, a CLP member and United States citizen, had fled Cambodia on July 5 after receiving notice of an arrest warrant against him, stating he was charged with using Facebook from 2020 to 2022 to “insult the king and… incite social unrest in Cambodia.”

Further arrests and detentions have also been reported from Thailand, where Robertson said police had arrested Thol Smanang, a CLP youth leader, while he was on his way to the office of the United Nations refugee agency in Bangkok where he has applied for political asylum.

Robertson said Thol Smanang had also criticized Hun Sen on social media and when a Cambodian police spokesman was asked why the arrest was made, he replied: “You do not have to ask about that. Just look at his [Facebook] messages, he was arrested because of that.”

Hun Sen announced on July 20 he had reinstated his Facebook account. It was deleted on June 30 before it could be suspended after an Oversight Board board for Facebook's parent company Meta found he had breached community standards by threatening to have people beaten.

Among others, Khem Monykosal, head of a provincial CLP committee fled Cambodia on July 13 after officials gave him the option of a government job, or facing legal action. He refused and his home in Phnom Penh was raided, Robertson said.

A day later, police charged CLP national steering committee member Ly Ry and acting Phnom Penh party chief Bun Kat with incitement for urging people to destroy their ballots. Bun Kat then posted a public apology on the pro-government news site Fresh News.

The HRW list follows a further ban, issued on July 17, on 17 members of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) – outlawed by the courts in late 2017 – from appearing on ballot papers for up to 25 years.

Meanwhile, jailed activist Theary Seng – who also edits the Khmer edition of the Bible – resumed her hunger strike ahead of the poll. Hun Sen has previously said the American-Khmer lawyer would not be freed from prison where she is serving a six-year sentence.

“She began a 10-day hunger strike on July 17 to protest against the July 23rd general election,” a source close to her family told UCA News. “She’s still in good spirits.”

Eighteen political parties are contesting an election, which only the CPP can win. Seven political outfits are new with little or no track record. Of the remainder Funcinpec was the best performer at the 2018 election, garnering just 5.8 percent of the vote.

Hun Sen insists there are still extremists working within the minority parties who were out to ruin the election by advocating a boycott or the spoiling of ballot papers.

“For the 2023 general election, in addition to the competition among 18 political parties for the National Assembly seats, we still have competition between the 18 participating political parties with the extremists who want to ruin the election,” Hun Sen said.

He also said 333 people from 65 countries and international institutions would act as election observers at this Sunday’s poll, including the speaker of the Parliament of Malaysia and the prime minister of the Republic of Guinea-Bissau.


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