A leading Cambodian opposition politician has been sentenced to another three years in prison after being convicted on two charges of incitement, the latest sign that the political climate will remain chilly under the new-look government headed by Prime Minister Hun Manet.
In a trial hearing, Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Thach Setha, a vice president of the opposition Candlelight Party (CLP), of incitement to commit a felony and incitement to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or nationality, The Associated Press reported. In handing down the ruling, Judge Chhun Davy of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered him to pay a 4 million riel ($1,000) fine.
The case against Thach Setha was based on remarks posted on social media that he made in January about then-Prime Minister Hun Sen’s relationship with neighboring Vietnam.
Throughout Hun Sen’s 38 years in power, which came to an end in August of this year, when he handed power to his son Hun Manet, opposition politicians have often attacked his relationship with Vietnam, which installed the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) after overthrowing the murderous Khmer Rouge government in 1979. Since the colonial period, Cambodian nationalists have viewed their eastern neighbor with fear and suspicion, with many believing that it harbors a desire to annex Cambodian territory.
In particular, Thach Setha is accused of making “critical comments” about the January 7 anniversary of the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, a key event in the CPP’s self-mythology, but which opposition figures have long described as a Vietnamese “invasion.”
During yesterday’s hearing, CambojaNews reported, Setha called on the world to restore democracy and human rights in Cambodia.
“We’re struggling for democracy, [I ask] all of you to help democracy,” Setha said, addressing diplomats and United Nations officials who attended his trial. “See with your eyes and hear with your ears.”
The three-year prison sentence against Thach Setha comes on top of the 18 months that he received last month, on charges of issuing worthless checks.
All of the charges have been denounced by human rights groups as part of a political campaign that crested in the run-up to the national election that was held in July. In October 2022, the same court convicted the CLP’s vice president Son Chhay of defaming the CPP, after he claimed that the local elections held in June of that year were marred by fraud. He was ordered to pay the party $750,000 in damages.
The following May, the National Election Committee, which is dominated by CPP appointees, refused to accept the CLP’s application to participate in the election, allegedly for failing to submit a notarized copy of the party’s registration document. The CLP claims that the original document was lost in 2017, when the authorities raided the headquarters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, shortly before it was dissolved by court order.
Liberated from any real source of opposition, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) went on to win 120 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly, a victory that set the scene for the long-planned transition of power from Hun Sen to his son.
In an emailed statement, Phil Robertson of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch described the sentence as “outrageous and unacceptable.”
“Cambodia’s repression of the opposition CLP has not reduced at all since PM Hun Manet took over his position from his father, showing just how central violating human rights is for this Cambodian People’s Party government,” he said. “Hun Manet is the dictatorial version of ‘old wine in a new bottle.’”