Prime Minister Hun Sen has rejected an apology from Son Chhay, vice-president of the Candlelight Party (CP), regarding his allegations of vote-rigging by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) at the commune council elections in June 2022.

Chhay was sued by both the CPP and the National Election Committee (NEC) and found guilty of defamation in both cases.

Hun Sen recalled his bitter experiences with the “many repeated apologies” from Sam Rainsy, former president of the long-defunct Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

The premier, who is also president of the CPP, made public his February 13 conversation on Telegram with president of the Cambodia-China Journalist Association Soy Sopheap, who is also director-general of Doeum Ampil Press.

In the messages, Hun Sen told Sopheap to send a message to Chhay, who is currently on trial over alleged defamation of the CPP and NEC, saying that he did not accept the apology because he wanted to end the practice of smearing political opponents with spurious accusations in Cambodian politics and that the CPP would no longer tolerate anyone accusing the party of cheating in elections.

“We have been apologised to many times, but the same old story keeps happening. So we just want to end this cycle of insult and apology by making them apologise in court so that the offenders will not do it again,” said Hun Sen.

Hun Sen added that supporters of Rainsy have the same character, noting that the self-exiled opposition leader had repeatedly apologised to him insincerely, only to go back on his word.

“The law must be applied to stop this repeated problem,” Hun Sen said.

On February 23, the Supreme Court upheld the guilty verdict from December 2022, which included fines of 10 million riel ($2,500) to the state and four billion riel as compensation to the CPP and NEC.

In his letter to Hun Sen on February 13, Chhay denied that he had said what was reported in his interview with the online outlet Cambodia Daily on June 7, 2022. In that interview, he is quoted as having accused the CPP of rigging the commune council elections.

Chhay said he had never intended to accuse the CPP or the NEC of rigging the elections and if there was any confusion he apologised.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said his party could not accept Chhay’s apology since the case had already reached the court.

Eysan used the metaphor that the “rice has already been cooked”, saying that the CPP had given Chhay ample time and opportunity to apologise prior to the court case proceeding.

“[Hun Sen] has already announced that he would not permit a culture of smearing others or let people attack the CPP or unjustly accuse the party of stealing votes, otherwise the upcoming general election this July will just be more smearing of opponents again,” he said.

The spokesman added that neither the CPP nor the government is concerned about international pressure claiming restriction on democracy ahead of the election.

Meanwhile, CP spokesman Kim Sour Phirith said that in politics, he wanted to see mutual understanding and tolerance because sometimes mistakes would happen and could hardly be avoided.

“Chhay is a spokesperson of the opposition party … Outsiders see this as a tactic to put psychological pressure on the leadership of the political opposition.”

He claimed that court cases involving Chhay and other CP leaders indicated a shrinking of the freedom of expression in Cambodia in advance of the national election.

Ou Chanrath, co-founder of the Cambodia Reform Party (CRP), said Chhay’s apology was justified if he knew he was wrong and it was an unintentional mistake.

He said he was also concerned about the judiciary’s actions, which he said were not undertaken to eradicate the culture of smearing but to put pressure on politicians as dealing with the court case would be burdensome to Chhay.

“I think the prime minister should reconsider and accept the apology and re-establish a culture of dialogue on how we should promote ethical behaviour among the leading politicians, to teach the next generation not to make serious attacks on each other,” he said.

Yang Peou, secretary-general of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said Chhay’s apology was late and it was not the first time he had made such a mistake.

“We all had participated and knew about the election process. Once he has made the accusation of cheating, if there is no reaction that means that [the CPP] accepts the allegation. The ruling party, the CPP, the winning party, must defend itself to retain its legitimacy,” he said.

He added that Chhay’s case is a model for politicians or other people who should think carefully about what they are saying before commenting on sensitive political issues, because most Cambodians did not have the ability to verify the information they hear and they can easily be led to believe falsehoods or exaggerations, which could cause social unrest.