King Wades Into Politics With Call for Fearless Vote

In a letter that began circulating online Monday, King Norodom Sihamoni calls for Cambodians to head to local polls in June and vote for whomever they please without fear, just days after leaving the signing of highly controversial legal changes to Senate President Say Chhum.

Though the letter was described as “routine” by the king’s adopted brother, who also said it was a coincidence that the king went to China this month when amendments to the Law on Political Parties were set to reach his desk, the opposition CNRP has embraced the symbolism of the moves.

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King Norodom Sihamoni speaks during an anniversary celebration for the NGO Krousar Thmey in Phnom Penh . (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

In the letter, which is dated February 20, but only began circulating on Khmer-language news websites Monday, the king appeals to all Cambodians to cast ballots in the upcoming commune elections.

“The June 4, 2017, election is a secret, general election on the principles of liberal democracy and pluralism and therefore do not be concerned about oppression, threats or intimidation by anybody or any political party at all,” the letter says.

“I would like all compatriots, brothers, sisters to exercise your right to vote at your will, with your conscience that trusts any candidate, any political party.”

CNRP Vice President Mu Sochua said the party was “very grateful” for the letter, though she said she did not believe it was meant to endorse any particular political persuasion.

“Whether it is his intention or not, it is a royal message that each citizen who reads it will keep in mind during a time when the political situation is sensitive,” Ms. Sochua said. “I think the king is reassuring people to be confident.”

The release of the letter comes in the midst of what is widely viewed as an all-out government offensive against its only legitimate challenger, including the passage last month of new legal provisions that allow the Interior Ministry and courts to suspend or dissolve political parties for vague infractions at their discretion.

In the days after the amendments were passed by CPP lawmakers in the National Assembly and Senate, King Sihamoni departed for China with the queen mother, leaving final approval of the bill to Mr. Chhum, the CPP vice president who, as president of the Senate, becomes acting head of state when the king is abroad.

Former opposition leader Sam Rainsy took to Facebook last week to thank the king for what he viewed as a gesture of protest against the new rules that some critics have called a “death knell for democracy,” although the king is supposedly on a routine medical visit to China.

Asked how he knew that King Sihamoni intentionally left his signature off the legal changes, Mr. Rainsy said his own family had long enjoyed close relations with the royal family, though he offered no specific evidence.

“Interestingly enough, the CPP has not denied—dare not deny—what I recently posted on my Facebook page,” he said in an email on Sunday, going on to quote his Facebook post.

“King Norodom Sihamoni has recently left Cambodia for China in order to avoid signing off on the undemocratic amendment to the law on political parties which practically allows the CPP to dissolve the CNRP any time,” he wrote.

Oum Daravuth, an aide to the royal family who occasionally speaks on their behalf, could not be reached Monday.

Ruling party spokesman Sok Eysan said he could not comment on the king’s intentions, but supported his call for Cambodians to vote.

“The content of the king’s message is appealing to his people to vote freely without fear,” he said. “It shows that the political situation ahead of the election is without fear, threatening, intimidation or harassment from any political party.”

Mr. Eysan’s assessment is a stark contrast to political analysts and observers, who have noted a significant rise in government efforts to suppress dissent, mainly through lawsuits or imprisonment. There are currently 27 political prisoners in the country, according to rights group Licadho, the majority of whom are activists or officials for the CNRP.

Prince Sisowath Thomico, a senior member of the CNRP and adopted brother of King Sihamoni, said it was the monarch’s sincere intention to stay out of politics, unlike his father, the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk. But he said it was proving difficult.

The prince said the letter was a standard message ahead of elections, though it did come particularly early this year. He noted that while the king was apparently unable to sign the contentious legal amendments while abroad, he did sign a royal decree while in China bestowing the honorific of “Samdech” on late Deputy Prime Minister Sok An before he died last week.

“I cannot comment on what the king is thinking,” Prince Thomico said.

“I only point out that there were two documents, one signed by the king and one by the senate president,” he added. “I think everyone can draw their own conclusion.”

(Additional reporting by Kim Chan)

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