Opposition leaders ripped into the government for their announcement on Friday that a petition sent to the king earlier this year was riddled with irregularities, telling reporters the act was intended to “raise the political heat to another level.”
In May, after the arrest of four Adhoc officials and a National Election Committee member as well as the attempted arrest of acting opposition leader Kem Sokha, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) officials gathered thumbprints and signatures hoping to get some form of assistance from King Norodom Sihamoni through a petition.
But the Interior Ministry began a two-month inquiry into the petition after an unverified video was released purporting to show CNRP officials telling people to sign the petition multiple times in different handwriting.
On Friday, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak laid out the discrepancies found in the petition, telling the media that the commission, headed by Interior Minister Sar Kheng and made up of police captains and provincial governors aligned to the ruling party, found 80,502 irregularities, including 738 thumbprints used more than once, 43 of which had been used more than 100 times.
“Some petitions from 26,953 people had names and thumbprints but no addresses. There were 188 without names and thumbprints,” he said.
The ministry said they had only been through about 2,600 of the petition’s 10,036 pages.
Mr. Sopheak called the petition’s mistakes “unacceptable” and said action would be taken by the government. He did not specify what kind of action or who would be facing any punishment for the petition.
Opposition party leaders shot back on Saturday, telling a crowd that countries which “respect democratic principles, freedom and human rights” do not scrutinize the names on a petition, but the content of it.
“This is a sign of new threats in addition to the threat against expressions of freedom. This investigation is prompting the political situation to heat up to one more level,” said CNRP member Eng Chhay Eang.
He told reporters that the CNRP wanted the king to see the petition regardless of any discrepancies the government is concerned about, and urged the involvement of NGOs and officials from their own party in the petition verification process to ensure its transparency.
CNRP members have even asked that the signature verification be done in front of the Royal Palace. Prime Minister Hun Sen shot down the idea, and said no monitors were necessary.
“We regret that the Interior Ministry is spending money and resources on this and not on something necessary like the Kem Ley case, which people are demanding justice for,” Mr. Chhay Eang added.
On May 30, opposition members sent a petition with more than 170,000 signatures asking King Sihamoni to step in after the government attempted to arrest acting CNRP president Mr. Sokha for failing to attend court hearings on an alleged sex scandal that already led to the arrest of a number of human rights officials. Thousands flocked to the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh to sign the petition.
Political analyst Kim Sok said the situation had very little to do with thumbprints or petition verification, and mostly boiled down to politics.
“This is just an attempt to break the spirit of the other side,” he said.
Other opposition members have aired similar claims, saying the inquiry into the petition was designed to slow the momentum the opposition had at the time the petition was started.
During a press conference early in June, CNRP member Pol Hom said the party was not worried about the petition because they had more than enough supporters to back up the signatures, adding they could add more if needed.
He added that despite their overtures and constant government talk of the “culture of dialogue,” the ruling party had no interest in negotiation to deal with the issue.
“Their [the CPP] purpose is not just to beat up Kem Sokha, but to cut the head off the opposition party,” he said.
Mr. Hun Sen has taken a particular interest in the issue, claiming it is his job to “keep lies” from the king.
“The thumbprint case has not yet been solved, and if it was made with the same 82 thumbprints, it is a serious contempt to the king, and a big lie to citizens, but let’s wait and see a specialist,” the premier told a crowd of students in June.
“I asked them to do research. Diplomats, please do not say that Hun Sen used the court system to resolve issues. If I do not use laws, what will I use? If we do not use laws, should we use a gun? If we use a gun, it’ll be a mess.”
Opposition CNRP supporters put their thumbprints on a petition at the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh. KT/ Chor Sokunthea