The Council of Ministers has asked Interior Minister Sar Kheng to investigate possible fraud in a petition from the opposition CNRP urging King Norodom Sihamoni to intervene in the country’s political crisis, claiming the probe was the king’s own idea.
The CNRP delivered the petition to the Royal Palace on Monday, asking the king to help ease political tensions, which have been on the boil amid the government’s dogged pursuit of criminal cases against several opposition activists and lawmakers. The party claimed to have collected thumbprints from some 200,000 people across the country supporting their call.
By Tuesday, the online Fresh News service, which often releases official government documents, had published a short video that shows a woman urging people to write multiple names next to pre-existing thumbprints. The headline on an accompanying story read: “The CNRP is Hugging Another Bomb to Its Chest and Just Waiting for the Day It Explodes.”
In a letter to Mr. Kheng dated Tuesday, the Council of Ministers asked that the petition be parsed for fakes.
“The Office of the Council of Ministers would like to inform Samdech Sar Kheng that Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen received a letter dated May 31, 2016, from His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni regarding a letter from CNRP lawmakers, with a petition from the people with 173,144 thumbprints, asking for his intervention,” it said.
“The Royal Government has decided to ask Samdech Sar Kheng, deputy prime minister and the minister of interior, to look into the thumbprints by 1) examination 2) directly searching for the people 3) using other means to authenticate them.”
It asks the interior minister “to conduct the most thorough research to avoid the use of thumbprints to cheat the people and especially the king.”
Council of Ministers Secretary of State Sou Phirin, who signed the letter sent to Mr. Kheng, said the investigation was strictly the Royal Palace’s idea.
“The letter we issued refers to the Royal Palace letter, and the suggestion to do the examination and research was from the Royal Palace,” he said.
Mr. Phirin refused to provide a copy of the alleged letter from the Royal Palace, however, insisting that it contained nothing of significance that was not reproduced in the council’s letter to Mr. Kheng.
Spokesmen for the Interior Ministry and the Royal Palace could not be reached for comment. Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said there was solid ground for an investigation.
“We saw the related video about fake thumbprints being made, so there’s reason to be suspicious,” he said.
CNRP lawmaker Mao Monyvann, speaking to opposition supporters outside the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, said they were ready and willing to prove the petition’s integrity by bringing everyone who endorsed it to the capital.
“If they want to check the thumbprints, OK. Even though there are 200,000 [people], we can show them every one,” he said. “We can take the thumbprints and present the people at Freedom Park or the Royal Palace.”
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a member of the royal family who sits on the CNRP’s steering committee, said he had seen no evidence of the king’s purported letter to Mr. Hun Sen and was convinced he would not have asked for an investigation.
“As far as the king is concerned, each time he receives that kind of request…he would raise a letter to the prime minister to do what he can,” he said. “I am 100 percent sure he didn’t write anything about investigating the thumbprints.”
“As long as there is no proof, we cannot say anything,” he added. “We cannot assess what the Royal Palace has done.”
The prince said the government, which likes to accuse the opposition of trying to sully the king by dragging him into the political fray, was doing exactly that.
“In the game, they try to involve the king as far as they can,” he said. “This is just another way for the ruling party to put more pressure on the CNRP.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)