Opposition local authority representatives who lost their jobs when the Cambodia National Rescue Party was dissolved earlier this month have gone into hiding fearing further intimidation and threats, according to opposition officials.
A small number of CNRP officials have joined the ruling Cambodian People’s Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen following calls to defect. But the majority of the thousands of opposition members serving in local authorities have declined the prime minister’s invitation, leading to a climate of fear of reprisals, according to officials.
Chin Sokngeng, a former commune chief in Siem Reap province, went into hiding after he rejected a plea to join the ruling party and says he has been surveiled by possible government agents.
“There is a group of people following all of our activities at the grassroots level,” he said. “Wherever we are, they are there to observe us. Recently a warning was published in the media that CNRP activists and officials would be arrested if we did not join the CPP. They will charge us with being traitors.”
In early September, government security forces arrested the party’s leader, Kem Sokha, and later charged him with treason for his supposed role in an alleged plot to overthrow Hun Sen in the lead up to the last election, in 2013. His party was disbanded by the Supreme Court on November 16 and last week its seats in parliament were distributed among minor political parties who did not win any at the last election.
The government has also targeted media outlets and NGOs in the country which it sees as propagating an anti-government narrative or “following foreigners” and whose presence in the country ahead of next year’s general election it believes could endanger a CPP victory at the polls.
Sokngeng says that at least 50 former commune councilors have so far gone into hiding for security reasons.
Seng Chanthou, another former commune chief, from Treal commune in Kampong Thom province, said she was concerned for her safety after enduring sustained harassment from local CPP officials who were attempting to pressure her into joining the ruling party.
However, she added that the actions of the CPP officials had only confirmed her choice not to defect.
“They can use all their resources to persuade us and we will not be persuaded; they will have other ways to persecute us. Police are patrolling the area a few times a day. We don’t know where they are from but they follow us even to the market. I have many children and no money so I don’t know where to go.”
Chanthou was one of about 5,000 opposition officials who joined local councils after the CNRP won more than 40 percent of the popular vote in local elections in 2016. Prior to the election, it held only 40 councils, less than a tenth of what it held after the election.
But the party’s dissolution meant that its newly won local power base, in many areas where the CPP has for decades relied on a system of patronage and local development projects funded by the party and wealthy donors to win the hearts and minds of the people, was lost and its seats handed out to the ruling party.
After the party’s dissolution, the interior ministry ordered the creation of a task force to monitor “any treasonous networks and activities”.
According to the ruling party, a fifth of the former CNRP officials have so far defected, a figure the CNRP disputes. Some of those, who have defected have described being forced into the decision, which they made purely for security reasons.
Sok Eysan, CPP spokesman, rejected the reports of CPP intimidation as false. “Now, thousands of their members have joined us. No-one is going to arrest them unless they break the law. This is a different story,” he said.
However, Lao Mong Hai, a veteran political analyst, said the ruling party had “no longer any respect for the constitution and existing laws.”