While the opposition party struggles to survive an ongoing crackdown, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party is stepping up its efforts to recruit new members – in some cases allegedly threatening villagers to sign up or suffer the consequences.
Residents in Ang Tasou commune in Svay Rieng province described recruitment efforts in which intimidation was used to win over potential voters.
One villager in Svay Chrum district, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals, said that a local CPP official went from house to house in his village and others to register residents with the party.
“The village chiefs came to collect data from us … They were asking: ‘which party do you vote for?’” he said.
“We were asked to swear [to vote for the CPP] – we are really scared to swear … We are worried about what is happening.”
He added the village chief told them they’d be excluded from receiving “party gifts” and improved infrastructure and public services if they refused.
The effect, he said, was for the villagers to pretend to join. “I want a change of leaders,” he said. “I want my country to be better than this.”
A 32-year-old resident of the same commune but from a different village, who also requested anonymity, said he agreed to join the CPP under pressure but wouldn’t vote in the 2018 national elections.
“I don’t want to betray my own will, but I don’t know how to do it,” he said.
“I’m worried about my country. As you see, the opposition leader was arrested and other leaders fled the country. I plan not to go to vote because it will be useless.”
He said he was afraid that if he refused to sign up it’d be difficult for him to receive public services in the future, such as getting administrative documents from the village chief.
Svay Rieng Provincial Governor and head of the CPP’s provincial committee Men Vibol confirmed that his office had instructed local authorities to recruit more members but denied that his team had forced anybody to sign up.
“They just strengthen their party.” he said. “We review members in the local villages to find out how many our members [we have]. We do it everywhere.”
He called the instructions part of “updating” their local party list, and denied forcing people to register.
“No one went to force them. [They’re all] just party members,” he said.
The recruiting efforts coincide with activities revealed in a string of leaked party documents calling for the creation of a catalogue of members – a “party family book” – through door-to-door interviews. Interviewers are instructed to inform superiors “of changes of . . . political feeling or disappointment of family members”.
Mao Vibol, head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s executive committee for Svay Rieng, said party activists had informed him that people across the province had been pressured to join the ruling party over the past few months.
“They are creating a party family book. In some areas they intimidate people to be loyal to them; they asked people to swear and promised them gifts, and said that if not, they won’t get any gifts,” he said. “It’s against the rule of law.”
Several children of civil servants, meanwhile, also informed The Post of being pressured to sign up.
Mu Sochua, the deputy CNRP president who fled the country this week under threat of arrest, said she had heard of such pressure all over the country – including in Banteay Meanchey, Svay Rieng, Oddar Meanchey and Phnom Penh.
“We cannot allow this to continue. Not only are the people afraid, they’re also forced to make a decision against their will,” she said, adding that election monitor Comfrel and the opposition has been hampered in observing what’s happening on the ground. “This will definitely affect the results of the elections,” Sochua said.
She added she had instructed lawyer Meng Sopheary to file a complaint to the Interior Ministry and the National Election Committee about the issue.
CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan said local authorities were simply implementing the party slogan – “strengthen old members and increase membership” – by updating their lists.
“It’s a new party member list . . . We are just updating our party member numbers, because it always changes,” he said.
He said this served the purpose of “easy managing” of local people in each village across the country.
Another villager in Ang Tasou commune, however, said he too was under pressure to sign up and feared reprisals if he didn’t. Nonetheless, he said he would still vote.
“I won’t vote for [the CPP]. I will go to vote and I will choose my favourite party instead,” he said.
Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said in an email that if the reports of intimidation were true it would reflect a similar strategy leading up to elections in 1998 and 2003.
“It seems the CPP is using every method available to it in order to ensure its victory at next year’s election,” he said.