Cambodia’s prime minister rebuffs apology statement from opposition figure

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has rejected a statement from a senior opposition party leader that followed a recent Supreme Court decision upholding a U.S.$1 million defamation judgment.

Son Chhay, vice president of the Candlelight Party, has been ordered to pay the damages to the Cambodian People’s Party and the National Election Commission. The judgment, which was upheld by the Supreme Court last week, stems from comments he made last year following local commune elections, which he said was marred by irregularities.

In anticipation of that decision, Son Chhay wrote a letter to the prime minister on Feb. 13 in which he said he “didn’t have any intention of accusing the CPP or the NEC of stealing votes, and I didn’t mean to say the CPP is a thief that will steal votes in the future.”

He also said, “If the CPP and NEC thought I alleged them as thieves, I am sorry.”

Son Chhay’s letter, which Hun Sen posted on Telegram, did not contain an apology that was directed at the prime minister. But Hun Sen on Tuesday nonetheless implied that it did.

“We can’t accept this apology. We want to eliminate the culture of being blamed and insulted,” he wrote in his own statement on Telegram. “We can’t accept being accused of stealing votes. They asked [for] apologies from us many times but the same things are happening.”

He pointed out that exiled political opposition leader Sam Rainsy had apologized to him many times but his supporters continue to make accusations and make unfair criticisms.

“We want to end this culture,” he said. “We are using the court to make sure that bad people stop doing the same things.”

Sam Rainsy is a co-founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was the previous main opposition party before the country’s Supreme Court dissolved it in 2017. He has been living in self-exile in France since 2015, when he fled a series of charges his supporters say are politically motivated.

Potential election impact

Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said he wants to see politicians think of the national interest and have productive discussions with each other that avoid political conflict.

Alternatively, the defamation lawsuit that targeted Son Chhay could have a negative impact on the upcoming July election by discouraging debate, he said.

“NICFEC wants this case to be over and the compensation to be forgiven because the court already made its decision and he [Son Chhay] is already ‘sorry,’” he said.

CPP spokesman Sok Ey San said he supports Hun Sen’s rejection of Son Chhay’s statement. The defamation lawsuit is not a threat against the Candlelight Party and won’t affect the election, he said.

“We all can see whether the political environment is heated or calm. It doesn’t mean without the Candlelight Party, the election can’t proceed,” he said.

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036