The CPP held a defection ceremony on Sunday featuring 200 supposed opposition supporters burning their CNRP hats and T-shirts as a show of loyalty to attending ruling party powerbrokers, a dramatic and hostile display both dismissed and rebuked by the opposition.
The ceremony, held in Takeo province’s Bati district on Sunday, welcomed 558 new members to the CPP in front of ruling party elites, including Sok Puthyvuth, a self-proclaimed reformer and the son of Sok An, who heads the Council of Ministers.
CPP attendees were mostly tight-lipped about the ceremony on Monday, repeating the figure of 200 defectors from the CNRP and refusing to give further details.
Pol Dos, the Komar Reachea commune chief, said he was at the ceremony. “They defected because they think the CPP is good,” he said.
Defection ceremonies have long been a favorite ploy of the CPP, particularly when elections near, though the opposition regularly denies the legitimacy of the figures and accuses the CPP of paying or pressuring participants.
District governor Ouk Ry said Sunday’s defectors were CNRP members from the commune who had given up on the opposition after seeing no benefit for their support over two or three election cycles.
“It was important for them to join the CPP because they want to unite the nation, and because the CPP helps develop the country and doesn’t discriminate against any political parties,” Mr. Ry said.
Part of the non-discrimination policy apparently included setting fire to a pile of CNRP-branded T-shirts and hats as part of the welcoming ceremony, a scene captured in photographs circulated online after being published by the government-aligned Fresh News service.
Mao Sophal, head of the CNRP’s executive committee for Takeo, said the shirt-burning was an act of hostility.
“The scene was meant to demean the CNRP, and their actions were not appropriate for a political party,” Mr. Sophal said. “We cannot stand for this.”
Sauth Yim, the commune’s deputy chief, who also belongs to the opposition, said there was only one genuine defector among the claimed 200, and that the ceremony was mostly a work of fiction.
“I think it was an invention to confuse people as well as national and international perceptions,” Mr. Yim said. “In fact, it was an act to try to destroy the CNRP.”
And though it was held outside Phnom Penh, it was far from low-profile.
Along with Mr. Puthyvuth, a prominent businessman married to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s daughter Hun Maly, the event was overseen by Svay Sitha, a secretary of state and head of the Council of Ministers’ public relations office, and Som Aun, a prominent CPP-aligned labor union leader.
None of the three could be reached on Monday.
The only participant at the ceremony who could be confirmed as a CNRP defector, Ouk Leng, 63, said he had refused to burn CNRP attire despite being told to do so.
“I told His Excellency [Svay Sitha] and other officials that I wouldn’t burn them because a shirt and a cap aren’t wrong,” Mr. Leng said.
Mr. Leng said he had switched sides to go along with his family members, who supported the CPP, and because ruling party officials could better help with his private issues.
He said he did not recognize most of the attendees.
Facing condemnation at home and abroad for what has been described as a campaign of intimidation against the opposition over the past year and a half, during which about 20 opposition figures have been imprisoned, the CPP has repeatedly said it is only upholding the rule of law and ensuring peace and stability.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said on Monday that he saw no problem with the symbolic burning of opposition apparel.
“Burning clothes doesn’t demonstrate violence because it doesn’t affect other people or harm anyone’s life,” he said.
“If they don’t appreciate a political party, they can clearly display so,” he said of the participants. “This is the right and freedom of people to political activity as stated in the Constitution.”
Pol Ham, a CNRP lawmaker for Takeo, said the opposition would not be bothered by the event.
“If they want to burn clothes, they have the money for it. Let them burn them,” Mr. Ham said. “If they want to stage performances, let them do it.”
(Additional reporting by Phan Soumy)