The CPP on Monday filed a defamation complaint against one of the country’s most prominent political analysts for suggesting that the ruling party was using an increasingly litigious sex scandal involving CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha as a means to damage the political opposition.
The complaint was filed just hours after Prime Minister Hun Sen used his Facebook page to issue a warning to commentators. It targets Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank, over a radio interview he gave on Sunday and demands 400 million riel, or about $100,000, for “affecting the dignity and prestige of the Cambodian People’s Party.”
“On April 24, 2016, during a Radio Free Asia broadcast, Ou Virak made a defamatory comment stating that: ‘The strategy of the ruling party now is to try to put pressure on Mr. Kem Sokha and his finances,’” the complaint says, going on to quote an RFA article based on the interview.
“The activeness of the CPP in subduing its political competitor in such way will make it lose a lot of popularity, and some officials in this party are also not fond of this tactic,” the complaint quotes Mr. Virak as saying.
The complaint calls Mr. Virak’s remarks “an intentional exaggeration placing blame with bad intention, which affects the honor and reputation, and defames the CPP.”
Contacted by telephone on Monday, Mr. Virak said he had only been offering an opinion about the political situation, and as such was not guilty of defamation.
“It’s an opinion. There was no accusation made,” he said. “It was an opinion saying that I think it’s going to backfire for the CPP, and that’s an opinion on popularity.”
Mr. Virak said he did not know how he would respond to the lawsuit.
“I’ll have to make a decision and wait and see…. I don’t have any money,” he said, laughing. “It’s a huge request.”
While refusing to respond to accusations about his purported affair with 25-year-old hairdresser Khom Chandaraty, Mr. Sokha has found himself at the center of an investigation by the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) for allegedly promising to give her money.
Anti-terrorism police were initially tasked with investigating a defamation complaint based on telephone recordings leaked online, reputedly featuring Mr. Sokha speaking with at least two mistresses. They proceeded to recommend charges of prostitution and false testimony against Ms. Chandaraty, who then changed her story last week, admitting to the affair and filing a lawsuit against Mr. Sokha demanding $300,000 in damages.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan, who signed the defamation complaint against Mr. Virak on behalf of the party, said on Monday that harsh action was necessary in order to prevent the political analyst from saying similar things in the future.
“If we do not take action like this, he will not stop repeating it,” Mr. Eysan said.
“He said really clearly…that the Cambodian People’s Party has prepared the stage for Mr. Kem Sokha and Srey Mom,” Mr. Eysan said, using a nickname for Ms. Chandaraty. “It’s not an expression of opinion but rather clearly painting a picture.”
Early on Monday morning, Mr. Hun Sen posted a message to his Facebook page warning political commentators not to affect the “honor and dignity” of the CPP, threatening legal action against offenders.
“I appeal to members of the Cambodian People’s Party and leaders at all levels: Prepare lawyers to be ready to file lawsuits with the court against those cases of slander against the Cambodian People’s Party,” the prime minister wrote.
“I appeal to analysts and commentators not to attempt to be fraudulent and claim that the colors red and pink are the same,” he continued. “All of you have rights, but don’t forget that we also have rights like all of you too.”
Mr. Hun Sen has a history of rebuking analysts who criticize his government, but often in a mocking tone during public speeches.
“I think we should establish a school and invite [the analysts] to teach us what we should do and should not do,” he said in February, referring to those who criticized his increased use of Facebook to engage with citizens.
Kem Ley, a political analyst and head of the “Khmer for Khmer” political advocacy group, said Mr. Virak’s opinions were based on the ruling party’s previous tactics, and well within the rights to free speech guaranteed under Cambodian law.
“The scope and focus of freedom of expression is very big, so a commentator or analyst [can] make a comment based on their own view and based on the previous experience,” he said, adding that the ruling party had an established track record of playing dirty.
“Similar games already happened in the past, and this game also has been played by the group,” he said. “It’s not just Ou Virak…. All the people understand clearly about the dirty politics happening in Cambodia.”
Mr. Ley said that he was not personally worried by the threat of legal action.
“We just express our own ideas based on the reality,” he said. “We need to speak the truth to the public and we need to continue our work without fear.”