A cascade of former Cambodian opposition politicians and activists have defected to the ruling Cambodian People's Party ahead of the July 23 election amid alleged government threats and frustration with Cambodia's political situation, putting pressure on the country's remaining opposition leaders.
In May, the government disqualified its main opposition Candlelight Party from participating in the election, hastening the departure of members. Even before that, though, defections had accelerated as Prime Minister Hun Sen cracked down on dissent with lawsuits, arrests and alleged beatings in recent months.
Candlelight spokesman Kimsour Phirith estimated that 10% to 15% of the embattled party’s central leadership has defected. Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan claimed “hundreds, thousands” of opposition supporters and officials had joined the party in the last year but did not provide evidence.
“This is the strategy of the rival party in order to make our party become weak … to show the image that we are breaking,” Phirith told VOA.
Among the defectors is Yim Sinorn, who spent a decade organizing Cambodian migrant workers in South Korea and worked closely with Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha, who was recently sentenced to 27 years of house arrest.
In March, Sinorn was arrested for posts on Facebook allegedly insulting King Norodom Sihamoni. While on bail, he posted a public apology on his wife’s Facebook page and announced his allegiance to the ruling party, quickly receiving a high-level appointment at the Ministry of Labor.
Sinorn claimed his decision stemmed not from pressure related to his arrest but years of frustration with the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party and its successor, Candlelight.
“I’ve seen the weakness of leadership of the former opposition party that made me realize I can’t continue the journey,” Sinorn told VOA. “I decided that I have to choose a new place to participate in serving the nation.”
“Everything I have done comes from my own will,” he added. “I think [my former work] was serving the benefit of society. It’s not that everything I did with the opposition group was a useless thing.”
Other defections have followed a similar trajectory. In June, Candlelight executive Sar Longdeth apologized and denounced the opposition after Prime Minister Hun Sen accused him of defamation over comments he made about the Southeast Asian Games. In May, 10 jailed opposition activists asked Hun Sen’s forgiveness in a video and joined the Cambodian People’s Party, but told local media they were not threatened into doing so.
Yet those who remain with opposition say that the ruling party’s coercion has been more brazen than ever this election season.
Chao Veasna, a popular former opposition leader in Banteay Meanchey province who was jailed in 2017 for allegedly inciting an anti-government protest, said he was approached by a senior government official in May who politely told him he was “targeted for life” and asked him to defect to the government, where he would receive a “fine position.”
“It looks like they are doing it openly and without hiding as before,” Veasna told VOA. Still, he refused the offer, saying he could not be forced into something he didn’t believe in.
“I am not worried about being killed … We need to have a strong spirit,” he said.
Cambodian political analyst Em Sovannara, a political science professor in Phnom Penh, said that while defections happen during every five-year election cycle, the sheer volume since last year’s local elections demonstrates how difficult it has become to survive outside the grip of the ruling party.
Since January, Human Rights Watch has counted at least seven acts of violence against opposition members, including three beatings that involved metal rods.
“We’re seeing that the process of democracy in Cambodia is shrinking and moving in a way that doesn’t give voters full freedom,” Sovannara told VOA. “It reflects the idea that ‘democracy’ is only alive when people are supporting and in line with the ruling party. Constructive criticism seems to be disappearing.”
Activist networks have also lost key members. In February, a member of environmental group Mother Nature denounced the group and formed a new organization — with the same name — under the government’s Environment Ministry.
Phuon Keoraksmey, an activist who remains with the original group, said she did not believe the government version would garner support or trust.
“We pity [them] and feel sorry that they are willing to leave freedom and go to live in a cage by supporting the government,” she told VOA.
Others have remained under pressure even after publicly proclaiming support for the ruling party.
Theng Savoeun, president of the agricultural NGO Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community, was arrested in May along with two colleagues and accused of fomenting a “peasant revolution.” Savoeun publicly apologized and confessed to his alleged crimes, but the Ministry of Interior ordered the organization to temporarily stop operating two weeks later.
Veasna, the opposition organizer who said he had been pressured to defect, said he did not want to be remembered as a traitor.
“They want benefits and positions,” he said of his former opposition colleagues. “They keep defecting, but me — I do [this work] for the nation. I don’t do it for the position.”