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Ahead of an Epochal Election, Cambodia Turns Courts Against Opposition

Thach Setha, vice president of the country's main opposition Candlelight Party, hugs a boy in front of the Prey Sar main prison outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on November 10, 2021. (Heng Sinith/AP)
Sok Eysan

Sok Eysan

Spokesperson for Cambodian People's Party

“Anyone who breaks the law has no political affiliations in the eyes of the court, which [j]ust takes action against them procedurally and according to law.”


On January 16, the vice president of Cambodia’s opposition Candlelight Party, Thach Setha, was arrested in an alleged check bouncing case.

The Candlelight Party blasted the case, claiming Thach Setha’s arrest is intimidation aimed at discouraging “the Cambodian people from engaging in political activities with the Candlelight Party.”

The Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) expressed concern over the arrest.

“The detention of the opposition leader ahead of the elections in July has again raised serious questions about the Cambodian government’s commitment to democratic principles and the rule of law,” ANFREL said in a statement.

Thach Setha, now vice president of the country's main opposition Candlelight Party talks to media members near the Vietnam Embassy in Phnom Penh on August 14, 2014. (Heng Sinith/AP)
Thach Setha, now vice president of the country's main opposition Candlelight Party talks to media members near the Vietnam Embassy in Phnom Penh on August 14, 2014. (Heng Sinith/AP)

Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen, responded:

“Those who said that this arrest was politically motivated were not aware of the facts of the deeds committed by Thach Setha, because he issued these bounced checks. Anyone who breaks the law has no political affiliations in the eyes of the court, which [j]ust takes action against them procedurally and according to law.”

That is false. In fact, the Hun Sen government has repeatedly used Cambodia’s judicial system against opposition political figures. In the upcoming election, Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet, is widely expected to take over control from his father.

Despite Sok Eysan’s claims to judicial impartiality, analysts rank Cambodia among the world’s worst countries when it comes to the rule of law.

“Cambodian authorities eroded what remains of democratic freedoms in the country by harassing, threatening, and prosecuting opposition politicians and activists, notably local leaders and members of the opposition Candlelight Party on spurious criminal changes,” for the New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on January 12.

General elections are scheduled for July 23. Hun Sen, who has ruled for 37 years, has ramped up his rhetoric against his political opponents in the Candlelight Party, which has emerged as the chief opposition force.

Observers say Hun Manet, who leads the Cambodian army, has been groomed to succeed his father. Pro-government media in Cambodia agree, with the CPP-aligned Khmer Times running a hagiographic three-part series on “Why Hun Manet is the future Prime Minister.”

In August 2022, Hun Sen warned “war will break out if the CPP does not rule.”

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen holds a news conference after the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh on November 13, 2022. (Cindy Liu/Reuters)
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen holds a news conference after the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh on November 13, 2022. (Cindy Liu/Reuters)

In October, Hun Sen threatened to dissolve any political party associated with Sam Rainsy, the co-founder of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Thach Setha was formerly a CNRP lawmaker. In 2017 local elections, the CNRP garnered 44 percent of the vote, despite conditions that Human Rights Watch deemed “hostile to free speech and genuine political participation.”

CNRP leader Kem Sokha was subsequently arrested on treason charges, and in November 2017, the Supreme Court of Cambodia ruled to dissolve the CNRP.

Vitit Muntarbhorn, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, said the CNRP was “disbanded unjustly by judicial order … leading to political and other distortions undermining the call for a pluralistic democracy.”

The CNRP’s dissolution effectively left Cambodia a one-party state. Hun Sen’s CPP won all 125 seats in the National Assembly in the 2018 general election, which international observers said was neither free nor fair.

The dissolution of the CNRP corresponded with mass trials of CNRP members.

On December 22, 2022, 36 CNRP leaders and activists were convicted on conspiracy charges for allegedly attempting to help other exiled CNRP members to return to Cambodia.

The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, a Phnom Penn-based human rights organization, said the conclusion of that case was “the fourth verdict in five mass trials that have been initiated against a total of 158 leaders and supporters of the former CNRP since November 2020.”

The Candlelight Party, formed in 1995, was inactive from 2012 and only returned to the political scene in October 2021.

In the wake of his October threat, Hun Sen has ramped up his rhetoric. Earlier this month, he said those who criticize the CCP face a choice between the courts and violence.

"Either you face legal action in court, or I rally CPP people for a demonstration and beat you guys up,” Hun Sen said on January 9.

Thach Setha is not the only Candlelight Party member facing legal troubles amid Hun Sen’s campaign of intimidation.

Days after his violence-threatening speech, Hun Sen demanded that Candlelight Party adviser Kong Korm hand his house over to the government within a month, reigniting a property dispute that began in the 1980s.

A former deputy foreign minister and diplomat, Kong Korm is also the father of senior Candlelight Party official Kong Monika.

Earlier this month, Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry filed a $1 million lawsuit against Kong Korm, alleging he fraudulently acquired the land title for his house. That lawsuit was dropped after Korm “agreed” to return the land to the state.

Political commentator Kim Sok told Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-funded, Voice of America sister news service, that Kong Korm gave up his land “in order to avoid prison or threats to personal security.”

Kong Korm also faces three years in prison in a separate $500,000 lawsuit for alleged incitement, after he insinuated the CPP has foreign roots. (Sam Rainsy had previously claimed the CPP was created by Ho Chi Minh, who was Vietnam’s communist leader.)

Candlelight Party Vice President Son Chhay was also ordered to pay roughly $1 million in damages to the CPP after alleging the June 2022 communal elections were marred by voting irregularities and electoral fraud.

HRW noted in its 2023 World Report that “the government obstructed and harassed members of the revived Candlelight Party” in connection with the June 2022 vote:

“Prior to the commune elections on June 5, 2022, authorities violated the rights of opposition Candlelight Party members by removing as many as 150 candidates from Cambodia’s National Election Committee lists, arresting party activists, threatening candidates to withdraw their candidacies or face spurious criminal charges and prosecution, and interfering in the election campaign. Despite these obstacles, the Candlelight Party won 18 percent of the national vote – but that translated into only 4 commune chief positions out of a total of 1,652 commune chief seats being elected. seats being elected.”

The Candlelight Party has warned they may not participate in the upcoming elections if the “severe” threats against their party continue.

A government spokesperson insisted those elections would be “free and fair” without the Candlelight Party’s participation, adding: “If they (CP) do not compete, it means they despise the value of people’s participation in building democracy and shows that they are not real democrats.”

But regional parliamentarians say it is Hun Sen who is attacking democracy.

“Threats of physical violence, especially from a man who has ruled his country for almost four decades and has turned it into a dictatorship, should send chills down the spine of anyone who believes in democracy,” said Mercy Barends, a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives and board member of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

“Hun Sen and his regime have a long story of silencing, harassing, and persecuting the opposition, and his threats are fully consistent with that. He should be unreservedly denounced for eroding democratic institutions in Cambodia,” she said.

The watchdog group Freedom House rates Cambodia as “not free.” The group’s latest profile of Cambodia describes the court system this way:

“The judiciary is marred by corruption and a lack of independence. Judges have facilitated the government’s ability to pursue charges against a broad range of opposition politicians.

“Due process rights are poorly upheld in Cambodia. Abuse by law enforcement officers and judges remains extremely common. Sham trials are frequent, while elites generally enjoy impunity.”

So, apparently, with the case of Thach Setha.

It is "ironic" that only political opposition leaders are arrested and investigated for alleged corruption "in a country like Cambodia, where corruption among government ministers is rife," Phil Robertson, HRW's Deputy Director, Asia Division, told

"This is what selective enforcement, masking political harassment, looks like. Thach Setha has denied the allegations against him but neither the police nor courts are likely to listen to his denials as long as senior political leaders claim he’s done something wrong.”