The fate of Cambodia’s opposition party is in the hands of the Supreme Court, which will decide tomorrow whether it should be dissolved or allowed to continue to operate after the government filed a lawsuit last month claiming it had broken election laws.
A recent order from the interior ministry instructed the security forces to monitor and disrupt any activity that could be construed as part of a vague plot against the government -- an obvious reference to the opposition party.
Defections, intimidation and threats have since dogged the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s officials, from the national to the local level. Most high-ranking CNRP politicians had already fled the country in anticipation of the court decision against the party.
Earlier this week, the government submitted what it said was additional evidence of wrongdoing, including a list of 117 CNRP officials which it claims should be barred from taking part in politics. Among the names are several senior party officials in Phnom Penh, as well as numerous CNRP leaders in nine provinces where the CNRP gained votes at the last election.
Chea Chiv, head of the CNRP executive committee in Battambang province, will be banned from politics for five years if the court rules in the government’s favor on Thursday.
Chiv, 37, said he had to be careful speaking with contacts over the phone, which he believes is tapped. “Now I can’t give away my location because I need to be mindful of my safety,” he said, adding that he and his staff have come under surveillance in recent weeks. “I know that the authorities are watching and observing me. When I go somewhere or even have an internal party meeting, I am watched by the local authorities, who come to take photos.”
“When I go to meet the leaders at the local level and ordinary people, I am watched.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen has said he is confident the party will be dissolved and that more than 100 politicians named in the government list will be banned from politics if they do not defect to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Ahead of the 2018 general election in July, he has also ordered NGOs and independent media often critical of his government’s actions to be shuttered.
In September, CNRP President Kem Sokha was detained on charges that he was involved in a U.S.-backed plot to overthrow the government.
The CNRP’s dissolution would leave the CPP largely unopposed in parliament, after the government ruled that its 55 seats in the 123-seat legislature could be handed out to several minor parties that won only a tiny portion of the popular vote in 2013, while the CPP would maintain its majority of 68 seats.
For CNRP officials such as Chiv, the events of the past few months have been an obvious “political strategy of the ruling party” to silence dissent.
“It’s political pressure. Legally, I’m just a lower official so I shouldn’t be banned from politics for five years,” he said.
As well as the MPs who will lose their seats, more than 5,000 local councilors will have their positions distributed among officials from other parties, including Hun Sen’s CPP.
Chiv joined the opposition when Sam Rainsy, the exiled formed opposition leader, began campaigning in the early 2000s. After his Sam Rainsy Party joined with the Human Rights Party, led by the CNRP’s current leader, Sokha, in 2012, it did well at the 2013 election and went on to secure more than 43 percent of the popular vote in local elections held in June.
In Battambang, the CNRP won control of almost half the local authorities, a significant gain in an area home to one of Cambodia’s largest and most productive metropolitan areas.
But following the call from Hun Sen for CNRP officials to defect, several CNRP members have left the party.
San Soeurng, 59, CNRP head in Kampong Cham province, who is also on the government’s list, said the lawsuit violated his right to political freedoms. “I have not done anything wrong, with the constitution or other laws,” he said.
So far 22 officials in his province have defected to the CPP.
The move to dissolve the CNRP has drawn strong criticism from abroad, but the government has dismissed the comments as interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs.
Khieu Sopheak, interior spokesman, said the government had collected evidence that the provincial party officials on its hit list were “actively involved in gathering people to carry out a color revolution,” a reference to the government’s claims that the CNRP was trying to overthrow Hun Sen by creating a mass movement to force him to step down.
“We have evidence like pictures from those provinces,” he said, without elaborating on what the pictures supposedly proved.
Meng Sopheary, CNRP head of electoral affairs, is also on the list of politicians who stand to be barred from their profession if the court rules against them.
She told VOA Khmer that more than 100 CNRP officials had so far officially defected to the ruling party.
In Kampong Chhnang province, Keo Thai, CNRP provincial chief, said the authorities had briefly detained two party officials and issued a warning to them not to travel to Phnom Penh for the court decision.
“Some officials have fled elsewhere. They are seeking safe places,” he said.
Mu Sochua, CNRP deputy president, said the threats and intimidation of the opposition showed that the CPP was ready to “grab power” ahead of the 2018 election.
“So it shows that there is no justice. The intimidation, polarization, and everyday use of threats are doing serious damage to democracy,” she said.
Two senior U.S. officials, Matt Pottinger, director of Asian affairs, and Patrick Murphy, deputy assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asia, met Prak Sokhon, Cambodia’s foreign minister, on Tuesday on the sidelines of the recent East Asia Summit in Manila, Philippines.
In a statement they said they “expressed strong concerns about recent steps that challenge the country's democratic progress, including restrictions on the free press, civil society, and the political opposition.”
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Cambodia’s international donors and supporters should clearly state that the government’s actions will “delegitimize” the 2018 election.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen seems afraid that he will lose elections scheduled for 2018, so he is using the nuclear option to destroy the opposition,” he added.
However, in a statement on Wednesday, Cambodian foreign minister Prak Sokhonn said Cambodia is committed to organizing the July election in a “free and credible” manner.