Opposition officials said yesterday that they would not bow to pressure and change a catchy campaign slogan after the ruling Cambodian People’s Party threatened legal action, calling the catchphrase “incitement”.
The passage “Replace the commune chief who serves the party with a commune chief who serves the people” was delivered by newly elected Cambodia National Rescue Party president Kem Sokha at an event last week to name new opposition leaders ahead of the June local elections.
It struck a nerve, however, with the prime minister, who, during a blistering speech, attacked the opposition on Monday and warned the CNRP to drop the catchphrase.
That evening the CPP followed up by releasing a statement threatening to pursue legal action, saying the slogan amounted to “incitement” and an “insult” to commune chiefs.
But yesterday, opposition spokesman Yim Sovann said there were no plans to change it, adding that, literally speaking, the expression did not even refer to a particular party.
“If anyone serves their party and does not serve the people, the people must change them,” Sovann said.
“Commune chiefs must serve the people when elected. We do not refer to any party. Even the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party have commune chiefs.”
The party’s third deputy Eng Chhay Eang, also defended the new slogan on Facebook, saying the CPP could ban the party from using it but not stop people from spreading it.
“It came from the people,” he said of the expression.
Pro-CPP youth, meanwhile, also took to the popular social media site to counterattack with their own rallying cry: “Don’t replace a real commune chief with a lying commune chief.”
But despite the CPP youths’ slogan being equally, if not more, inflammatory, ruling party spokesman Sous Yara said supporters were free to use it because they had “freedom of expression”, although it was not an official party slogan.
The CNRP’s slogan, on the other hand, maintained fellow CPP spokesman Sok Eysan, warranted legal action, though he did not elaborate under what law that might be pursued.
“If they can change it, it’s a compromise . . . but if we cannot change [it], we [will] go find an arbitrator that is a judge,” Eysan said.
The courts in Cambodia are widely seen as being in the hands of the CPP, which has been accused of launching a slew of politically motivated lawsuits against opponents in an attempt to gain an advantage come election time.
The National Election Committee’s Hang Puthea yesterday declined to comment on whether an apparent effort by the ruling party to effectively ban an opposition campaign slogan was appropriate, saying he had “no reaction”.
A “dirty tricks” campaign, meanwhile, has also been playing out on Cambodia’s political scene, with the CPP allegedly leaking recorded phone calls unflattering to opposition figures and Rainsy distributing leaked chat logs highlighting apparent dubious dealings between ruling party elites.
Among the latest batch was a purported conversation between Hun Sen and Kem Sokha that the prime minister characterised as proof Sokha had taken over the party under his instructions.
The one-time deputy leader assumed the presidency last week after former leader Sam Rainsy resigned to avoid his past criminal convictions – most also considered politically motivated – being used against the party under new and controversial CPP-passed laws.
Rainsy has dismissed the suggestion that Sokha colluded with Hun Sen, characterising it as another CPP trick.
Two local level opposition officials – Soung Sophorn, a youth member and former lawmaker candidate, and Ly Sokun, a commune councillor in Boeung Kak I commune – resigned in the wake of the leaks.
But Sokun, who was imprisoned in February for “forgery” related to voter registration, appeared more upset about his placement as the second commune candidate for Boeung Kak I commune. In a statement yesterday, he said there was “no transparency” in the selection process, and said he had applied to join the CPP.
At a party meeting yesterday, Sokha told CNRP lawmakers not to be distracted by the leaks, to trust the leadership and to focus on the elections, said CNRP lawmaker for Battambang Long Botta.
“The leaders are still united,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING SHAUN TURTON