Three former opposition party officials in Battambang province have been reported to the National Election Committee by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) over a post on Facebook in which they endorsed an election boycott known as the Clean Finger Campaign.
The boycott campaign, spearheaded by exiled members of the opposition, has provoked the ire of Cambodian authorities, who have repeatedly declared that it is illegal to urge people not to vote, despite there being no law to this effect.
According to a copy of a complaint filed by a CPP official on July 20, Chea Chiv, the former head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in Battambang province, and two other men are being accused by the ruling party of “incitement” over a photograph posted on Facebook in which they held up their index fingers at a noodle-eating party.
They were accused of violating Article 142 of the Election Law, which imposes a fine of up to 20 million riel (around $5,000) on those who prevent citizens from casting votes, among other offenses. However, the complaint’s use of the term “incitement,” which is a serious crime carrying prison time, could indicate an intention to file a criminal complaint against the men.
“It is just intimidation and threatening the freedoms spelled out in the constitution,” Chea Chiv, 39, said of the complaint against him.
He said that on Thursday, he hosted a gathering of around 30 former CNRP officials at his home in Battambang to eat noodles. After their meal, they took group photos. Three of the ex-officials posted these pictures on Facebook the same day, and were sued the next day.
The two other accused men are former CNRP district councilors Pov Tang, 42, and Kruy Kimsaing, 44.
“I have a good mind, not good looks, but my finger is clean,” said Pov Tang, recalling what he had posted on Facebook along with the “clean finger” photos.
“I posted a headline that my finger is clean without the CNRP,” said Kimsaing.
“I don’t incite. It is my individual right” to say so, he added.
Piv Houy, the CPP deputy commune chief who filed the complaint against the men, said he did so because they had indeed “incited” people to stay home on election day.
“It is because they have 20 to 30 people raising clean fingers,” he said. “It is like incitement. Their boss ordered them to do the clean finger campaign. If they were just ordinary people, I would not sue, but they are officials from the dissolved party and their leader ordered that,” he said.
Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who has been living in exile since 2015, has repeatedly called on Cambodians to boycott the upcoming poll and is using the “Clean Finger Campaign” as a catchy name to capture public interest. The term refers to the purple ink used to mark the fingers of people who vote in an election.
The campaigners claim that the opposition is being unlawfully excluded from the upcoming national election after it was dissolved by court order last year, and say that the only way now for voters to express their displeasure with the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen is to boycott the poll as a sham.
“If you go to vote, it means that Cambodia will be in ruins because this fake election just allows Hun Sen to maintain his power,” he said in a video posted on his Facebook page.
Hang Puthea, the spokesman for the National Election Committee, confirmed the receipt of the CPP’s complaint and said the NEC would attempt to negotiate a compromise between the ruling party and the accused men before taking further action.
However, he added: “If they are found intentionally gathering to [urge] people not to vote, that is a problem.”
Rhona Smith, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, has called on the Cambodian government to condemn the intimidation of non-voters, and respect people’s right to freedom of expression, including those calling for an election boycott.
“I am concerned about reports of voter intimidation in the lead up to the national election,” she said in a statement posted online by the United Nations Human Rights Cambodia office.