Prominent Adhoc staffer and frequent government critic Chhay Thy yesterday confirmed he has thrown his hat in the ring to represent the ruling Cambodian People’s Party as a commune chief in Ratanakkiri province, a move a spokesman for the rights group said demands an “explanation”.
As Adhoc’s Ratanakkiri coordinator, the 48-year-old human rights staffer has long been a vocal critic of illegal logging and mining activity in the province as well as an advocate in long-standing land disputes and a keen supporter of ethnic minority rights.
Thy, however, yesterday said he had voluntarily and “without any persuasion” chosen to represent the ruling party at the upcoming elections for the province’s Pate commune.
“I do it to become the commune chief so that the local community will develop, because when working with an NGO, I have no decision-making authority in developing [communities],” he said.
Thy said about 90 commune councillors voted in a secret ballot to select Pate’s CPP commune chief candidate, though the results had yet to be declared.
The elections are part of a new CPP plan to conduct primary-like elections across the country’s 1,646 communes to select candidates for the June 4 ballot.
“I decided to apply to the CPP because in Pate commune, the CNRP candidate has won the commune chief position twice already,” he said, adding the CPP was the best option for him to get elected.
Thy’s activities have seen him attract the ire of businesses and local officials in Ratanakkiri, with the Interior Ministry’s Khieu Sopheak even threatening to sue him over comments made in 2015 regarding Vietnamese Montagnard asylum seekers.
While an avid social media user, which he frequently used to issue criticisms, Thy’s activity on Facebook has eased up on the dissent in recent months, even posting pictures with ruling party lawmaker Bou Lam and Provincial Governor Thong Savon. He yesterday denied either had any influence on his decision.
The move to the CPP comes as four of Thy’s fellow Adhoc staffers enter their ninth month of pre-trial detention in a case widely considered politically motivated and engineered by the ruling party.
Thy yesterday refused to say if the ongoing jailing of his colleagues had given him pause before making the leap.
“This is what I want for myself,” he said, before declining to comment further.
Adhoc spokesman Sam Chankea said he only found out about Thy’s decision yesterday and that the rights group was sending a team to the province to further investigate the issue.
“If he did apply, then Adhoc will ask him to resign, and if not, he needs to make a public explanation,” Chankea said.
He added that it was Thy’s right to work for the CPP but that losing a senior and experienced staffer would be a blow to the rights group.
Iem Oeun, a Cambodia National Rescue Party provincial official, said Thy was welcome to join the CPP, but was unsure of his motivations.
Nonetheless, he insisted Thy’s candidacy would not affect the opposition’s prospects in the commune.
“Villagers are more and more understanding from one mandate to another and they think very much before voting for a leader,” Oeun said. “We will win.”
Ou Virak, founder of the Future Forum think tank, said while it may seem awkward that Thy chose to join the party he had spent his Adhoc career criticising, entering politics was never a “black and white decision”.
“Through a human rights lens, to be honest, the verdict is still out on who is better, given that the opposition has also not come out with any policies,” he said.
He said Thy would lend credibility to the CPP and that adding him was a “smart move” by the ruling party to boost its chances in the July election.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ANANTH BALIGA