Rong Chhun, an outspoken political activist who had served time in prison in recent years, has announced his intention to enter politics with the Candlelight Party (CP) and run in the parliamentary election this July.
Chhun announced his plans at a press conference on January 31 at the headquarters of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA), an organisation he co-founded.
He said he would resign from his work with civil society organisations and pursue a political career with the CP, a move which he said followed numerous requests from party leaders, members and activists.
"The decision to enter politics with the Candlelight Party now is based on our belief that the upcoming election will change the political landscape here considerably. We believe that some people who right now are standing on the sidelines or unsure of whom to support or are awaiting the return of the [now-defunct] CNRP will see my presence as a candidate with Candlelight as the sign they have been waiting for and they will throw their support behind us," he said.
Chhun said he has no worries or regrets about his decision to join the CP despite recent political tensions and various senior CP leaders facing lawsuits in court and even criminal charges.
CP spokesman Kim Sour Phirith said that Chhun was very welcome to join the party because he was “very influential” in civil society as a prominent activist demanding better salaries for teachers and workers, as well as more respect for their rights and democracy as a whole.
He said Chhun has also shown courage and the strength of his beliefs by spending time in prison and remaining undeterred to return to politics.
"Chhun did not demand a position or any conditions. When a person with such a wonderful reputation, and is an influencer in society – and who is a real hero like Chhun – asks to join your party, we just say yes and then we figure out an appropriate leadership position or role for him in future,” he said.
Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labour Confederation (CLC), said he respected Chhun's decision to leave the unions’ work to become a politician as it is an individual's right and freedom to do so. He said Chhun would be of great service to Cambodia in a leadership position.
"Chhun has a lot of potential support from workers and the general public because he has contributed to the protection of workers and people' rights, so he can bring in some heavy support. I think it is a good idea that he made it a clear decision by submitting his resignation letter from work before announcing he would participate in politics,” he said.
Em Sovannara, a lecturer in political science and an analyst, said Chhun's involvement in the political life with the CP would give the party more power, a louder voice and greater strength as he joins an already impressive roster of opposition figures and politicians.
"This is a trend we can see that politicians outside the government are united or are gathering more forces now to contest the July general election, which is shaping up to be very competitive,” he said.
Sok Eysan, a spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), said Chhun's political stance is nothing new as he has always been anti-government. Eysan said the CPP-led government has granted freedom to such critics and everyone else to enter into political life if they chose to.
"The CPP is not afraid. For the upcoming national election, I predict that the Candlelight Party will not get more than 20 per cent of the vote. In the 2022 [commune council] elections, we saw the CPP got 74 per cent of the vote, while the opposition got only 18 per cent across a number of parties,” he said.