The Candlelight Party’s (CP) statement about the current political situation in Cambodia wherein they claim that they are working “under threat and intimidation from the ruling party” drew another warning of legal action from Prime Minister Hun Sen, in his capacity as its president.

While visiting the construction site of a hospital in Phnom Penh on January 19, Hun Sen said the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) would file a lawsuit if the CP did not withdraw their statement.

“You can issue a statement claiming that the CPP has threatened you, but be careful of being sued by the CPP. You must be clear on this,” he said.

Hun Sen’s stern warning followed a public written statement by the CP – the country’s second-largest party – on January 18 stating that they are “utterly against political oppression, threats and persecution in all forms from the ruling party and demand an immediate stop to all of these actions”.

The CP’s statement came in the wake of the recent arrest of one of their vice-presidents, Thach Setha, on January 16 on charges of writing “five bounced cheques”, allegedly committed in November 2019.

“You must be clear with me on this. You issue bounced cheques which resulted in your arrest by the court. It is rational enough. Don’t just say that everything is politically motivated,” Hun Sen said.

The premier said he had already told his legal team to look into the CP’s statement and demand an apology, or they would be hit with a lawsuit.

“If you referred to the ruling party, that meant you referred to the CPP. When and where did the CPP threaten you? If you don’t withdraw your words, we will file another complaint,” he said.

Hun Sen said the CPP is trying to counter any allegations which affect the party’s reputation, such as vote buying claims and any other allegations regarding the history of the party.

Following his remarks, the CPP issued a written statement on January 19 saying that the CP’s claims had “seriously damaged the CPP’s reputation for integrity”.

The statement also said the CPP had followed the principles of multi-party democracy, the Constitution and the laws, enabling rights, freedoms, peace and security, which are the basis for prosperity.

“The CPP cannot accept the insult and baseless allegation by the Candlelight Party. The party will do everything possible under the law to defend itself from outside attacks. We support the government and courts in taking action against the violators of laws,” it said.

The statement also stressed that the CPP is committed to working with other political parties to ensure a good political atmosphere in the run-up to the July 23 national election, which will be held on “free and fair” principles.

CP vice-president Son Chhay could not be reached for comment on January 19, but last week CP senior official Kong Monika said that warning of legal action against any party that verbally criticises the CPP was against democratic principles.

Ou Chanrath, founder and vice-president of the Cambodia Reform Party (CRP), echoed Chhay’s remarks, saying that the ruling party’s warnings of legal action against critics affected the principles of democracy which ensures the right to constructive criticism.

“I am not for insults and smears which are baseless and made only to defame other parties. But when there is a legal complaint due to political rhetoric, this will make it hard to maintain democratic practices,” he said.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said legal action by the CPP and Hun Sen against those who insult the ruling party reflect social justice and are meant to end slander in politics.

“Insults are not a kind of freedom of expression. Cambodia’s Constitution states clearly that freedom of expression is ensured for all. We all can write, speak, and whatever we want to, unless what we do affect the rights, integrity and reputation of other people, as well as good national traditions and security,” Eysan said.

Yong Kim Eng, director of the People’s Centre for Development and Peace, said political situation is normally tense ahead of an election, and that politicians sometimes make baseless claims amid a lack of understanding from each side.

“When there is rhetoric and there is no tolerance from the other side, it leads to further division, and political disputes can mount. Lawsuits from those who have been affected may ensue as a result,” he said.

Royal Academy of Cambodia secretary-general Yang Peou said the recent legal action taken against Setha and senior CP adviser Kong Korm were due to legal procedures and personal claims and were not politically motivated.

“If it is legal action taken due to someone’s personal behaviour and it is interpreted as an intervention, then the CPP can sue in court to defend its integrity. If the CPP remains silent, it means the party accepts that it had carried out the intervention as claimed,” Peou said.