The Cambodian People’s Party intensified its push yesterday for former opposition officials to defect to the ruling party, as newly leaked audio purported to show Prime Minister Hun Sen explaining the defection drive as a way to neuter any future political opposition.
Meanwhile, the ruling party’s defection push also accelerated on government mouthpiece Fresh News, which published more than a dozen articles yesterday about former Cambodia National Rescue Party members changing sides across the country. The outlet claimed that more than 2,000 officials had moved to the ruling party – a figure that ex-opposition officials said was exaggerated, and which even seemed at odds with the CPP’s own tally.
“Now, we see the defection movement is increasing, but there is not enough time,” Hun Sen says in the audio clip, which appears to be a message to party officials from November 24. He adds that after speaking with Senate President Say Chhum and Interior Minister Sar Kheng, the party would extend the defection deadline to 9pm on Sunday to “cut off the foot of the CNRP”.
The alleged leaked recording also features Hun Sen discussing the importance of absorbing the CNRP’s commune officials into the CPP in order to prevent future political activism or protests by those officials. The opposition party was dissolved in a widely condemned decision by the Supreme Court on November 16 over accusations it was fomenting “revolution”.
Hun Sen had previously given opposition officials until Friday to defect, but yesterday morning the prime minister enacted the plan laid out in the audio clip, pushing back the deadline during a speech in front of garment workers on Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich.
The CNRP, meanwhile, insisted in a statement yesterday that the party continued to function and pledged that it “will organise the mechanism to help our brothers and sisters to connect with the party leadership at all levels inside and outside the country”.
However, Ker Tai, the CNRP’s former Kampong Chhnang executive committee head, accused authorities of targeting opposition officials with threats and described a party operation in chaos. “They put pressure and threats of all kinds” on local officials to defect, he said. “We lost control like the break-up in the battlefield.”
Jonathan Sutton, a researcher on government repression in Southeast Asia at the University of Otago in New Zealand, said yesterday that the high-profile defections were meant to “destroy the CNRP’s credibility with the Cambodian people”.
“This kind of very public, very shameful display of the CNRP’s lack of internal discipline and commitment will damage its internal unity as well as its domestic legitimacy”, he said, adding that the CPP was trying to “attack [the opposition’s] legitimacy to make sure that it can’t be transferred to another party or a new iteration of the CNRP”.
Ork Kimhan, deputy chief of cabinet of the CPP’s central committee, said that as of yesterday morning, 774 elected CNRP officials had defected to the ruling party, including 63 commune chiefs, 222 deputy commune chiefs and 489 commune councillors. The opposition won more than 5,000 elected positions in the June elections.
Former deputy president of the CNRP Mu Sochua called the defections cases of “political persecution” and encouraged the international community to take action.
“The CNRP is calling on the UN and other human rights defenders groups as well as the international community . . . to take action in condemning such act[s] and to conduct an immediate investigation of these serious violations of human rights.”