UPDATED 5:50 p.m. — Prominent unionist Rong Chhun joined the Candlelight Party on Tuesday, months shy of the national election, saying he expected a “big achievement” for the party in July.
The unionist, who was previously the president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, made the announcement Tuesday morning in Phnom Penh. He had teased the announcement on Monday, stating he would either stay with his union work or enter politics.
On Tuesday, he said he was closing the chapter on his work as a unionist and entering politics to give him more chances to serve workers and teachers.
“That is why I decided to participate in political life with the Candlelight Party today,” he said. “So, we expect that in the upcoming July 2023 [election] there will be a lot of change.”
Chhun did not say if he would contest the upcoming election and would leave that decision to Candlelight’s leadership.
Chhun’s entry into Candlelight is the most prominent inclusion into the party which has since its resurgence last year relied mostly on former Cambodia National Rescue Party and Sam Rainsy Party members to staff the party’s hierarchy and contest the June 2022 commune election.
The new Candlelight member has been at the forefront of the labor rights movement in Cambodia, and was one of the first unionists to join forces with the CNRP during protests after the 2013 election.
Chhun was also a CNRP-selected member of the National Election Committee, which was reformed after the contested 2013 election. He quit the position after the dissolution of the CNRP.
The unionist has faced legal troubles for his work, especially comments on the border with Vietnam. He was arrested in 2020 for saying he had spoken to farmers in Tbong Khmum who said part of their land had been given to Vietnam as part of a controversial border demarcation process. He was convicted and later released in November 2021 after an Appeal Court suspended part of his prison sentence.
Son Chhay, Candlelight’s vice president, said the party welcomed anyone to join and compete with the ruling party. He said they were aware of Chhun’s intentions to join the party and the unionist’s colleagues and others wanted him to join politics.
“Rong Chhun is a prominent person and he has worked almost his whole life in serving workers, teachers and other social workers,” Chhay said, adding that leadership will decide how to use Chhun in the party.
Chhay also pointed to Sok Hach, a economist, who will assist the party in formulating policies on the economy, labor issues and the agriculture sector, and give them a chance to respond to the government’s plans and policies.
Social commentator Meas Nee said Chhun was a hefty personality and would help the party, which is facing attacks against its senior leadership. However, he was a little skeptical of how many supporters Chhun can draw to the party.
“I am also worried because the weak point of the Candlelight Party is its vulnerability to the risks of being accused by the ruling party,” he said, pointing to potential lawsuits existing against Chhun.
Updated at 5:50 p.m. with comments from Son Chhay and Meas Nee.