Ruling party spokesman Sok Eysan urged government “critics” attending a conference in Australia this week to form their own political party and compete in the upcoming July elections.
The World Khmer Conference took place in Melbourne, Australia over three days, and played host to many prominent figures in Cambodia’s increasingly beleaguered civil society. Former opposition Deputy President Mu Sochua was also present, although she said she was there in a “personal capacity”, not as a political representative.
While Eysan did not name any individuals specifically, government mouthpiece Fresh News reported that he was referring to professor Ear Sophal, anti-corruption advocate Preap Kol and political analyst Meas Nee, among others, all of whom attended the conference.
Sochua’s party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was dissolved in November on widely condemned allegations of fomenting “revolution”. Since then, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has clamped down on dissent and increased its scrutiny of civil society, even as international criticism of the crackdown has mounted.
Eysan said in an interview on Monday that it was attendees’ “right” to participate in the conference, but said any discussions outside of Cambodia’s political framework are “useless”, despite the ruling party having quashed the prospect of talks with the former CNRP.
“They should join together to collect their wisdom and make it into good policy programs,” he continued, seemingly speaking sarcastically.
“They should form a political party to compete and defeat the CPP,” he added.
Sophal, Kol and Nee all denied having any interest in engaging in politics in Cambodia on Monday.
“I appreciate his encouragement to enter politics as a testament to my effectiveness as scholar,” said Sophal, who is a professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in the US.
“But given that the July 2018 Elections will be neither free nor fair (they have not been since 1993), it would be like playing a chess game where all my pieces are pawns and all other side’s pieces are Queens, Rooks, Bishops, and Knights,” he continued in an email. “In other words, a fool’s errand.”
Prior to the conference, both Sophal and Kol wrote an email requesting to abstain from endorsing the group’s resolution. Nee said he too was not involved in the resolution.
As of press time, the resolution had not been finalised.
Kol said he does not see himself as a critic, but rather “as an expert and advocate for anti-corruption, good governance, transparency, integrity, democracy and rules of law”.
Speaking via email, he went on to say that he has no interest in “the current politics”.
“I do, however, believe that clean politics is a precondition to make a country less corrupt,” he added.
Nee said many topics outside of politics were discussed at the conference, including health care, education and development.
“We never wished to establish a political party. What we talked about here are social problems,” he said, adding that nobody “attacked” the government.
Nee said the government’s attempts to politicise civil society figures makes people “hesitate” to express themselves.
“This is not just affecting freedom of expression, but affecting our freedom to share our knowledge and experience to other people,” he explained.