Local-level Candlelight officials say they face regular harassment and discrimination, and are disappointed to see the party’s leaders shirk away from it and instead embrace the ruling party.
Some of the grassroots opposition activists said they understood the need to be soft to avoid being dissolved before the election, but others said they would need to reconsider their membership if the opposition was losing its principles.
Candlelight vice president Thach Setha was arrested Monday amid a recent string of lawsuits against the opposition. The party issued a statement calling for the ruling party to end its pressure, threats and political persecution, but soon took it down due to an angry speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
On Friday, Candlelight further issued a statement that stopped short of an outright apology but said Candlelight “affirms the purity, correctness and dignity of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.”
The opposition “supports the position of the Cambodian People’s Party in strengthening the political environment in the best way to ensure that the upcoming seventh National Assembly election on July 23, 2023, will be free and fair,” it said.
For Sok Sreynuon, Preah Theat first deputy commune chief in Tbong Khmum’s O’Reang Ou district, the party leaders’ attitudes were concerning.
“I came and joined the opposition party because I love their principles — not the individuals themselves — so when they change their principles, I will not support them,” Sreynuon said.
Opposition supporters in her commune faced regular pressure — they were scared to put up signs or talk politics because they relied on ruling-party commune officials to sign documents for them, she said. As first deputy, she was being excluded from most of the administrative work, she added.
“When we are in there we can help with a lot of things for the people. … I can raise my voice for people against paying the money,” she said, alluding to bribes.
“What [Hun Sen] has been doing is preventing the opposition party from participating in the election, and this is not democracy or justice for Cambodia.”
She was not going to back down from the pressure, Sreynuon said. “I have seen his messages and remarks. It does not break my spirit. Even seeing my vice president arrested, we are still strong. I’m used to this thing.”
She would not apologize for saying the opposition was under pressure, she added.
“Strong leaders would reconsider on this issue because we did not make a mistake,” Sreynuon said. “We do politics. We have the right to express our views and to have our principles. When we are the opposition party and we follow the lines they draw … What’s the point of being an opposition party?”
“What’s the point of staying with the opposition party?”
Mey Sophorn, Svay Ralum second deputy chief in Kandal’s Takhmao city, said he was similarly excluded from the commune’s administrative work and faced frequent pressures. But he remained strong, he said.
“The local leaders are not scared or afraid about threats and intimidation from anybody. We just want the party leaders to not bend to the storm,” Sophorn said. “There will be more storms coming before the election.”
“We are Candlelight. We have to face this storm, wind and rain,” he said. “When the leaders bend to the wind, it does not work. Those of us below, we are still strong even though there are continuous threats. The most important thing is the leaders should not bend to the wind and must have a firm stance.”
Sophorn added, however, that he understood the rationale behind acting weak.
“Our goal is to join the 2023 election. We can soften our stance a little. Softening our behavior doesn’t mean embracing their legs. We soften our stance to avoid dissolution like the CNRP.”
Candlelight’s Kandal executive committee head Ly Meng said commune officials across her province were facing discrimination and threats. On Thursday, an opposition supporter had a wooden bar thrown into his home, Meng said.
“This development darkens the environment, and I would like to ask the authorities to loosen up the situation so that the election can be free and fair and acceptable. … There will be more threats to senior leaders of Candlelight, and the upcoming election will not be free and fair.”
However, some local Candlelight leaders put the recent incidents in a more favorable light.
“It shows that Candlelight is strong so that the ruling party has to take action,” said Mai Hong Sreang, head of Candlelight’s Preah Sihanouk provincial committee. “This work is senior work, and I am at the local level. I cannot make the decision.”
But he would not apologize, Hong Sreang added. “A democracy allows people to criticize the government and the head of the government. It is a normal thing.”
Candlelight’s Kampong Cham executive committee member Touch Thoeng echoed the sentiment that Hun Sen appeared to be feeling threatened by the opposition, saying “he might consider that Candlelight is hugely popular.”
Ruling party spokesperson Sok Eysan said Candlelight’s latest statement was not enough.
“Samdech techo, the head of the party, said clearly that Candlelight must issue a public apology,” Eysan said. “This statement does not include an apology for their previous mistake. … I think this is not appropriate for the CPP’s request that wanted them to clean up their accusation that the CPP pressures them.”
“The CPP is the angel party and has never been angry with anyone. … We are just responsible, and in legal ways find justice for ourselves.”