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Rights Group, Diplomats Call on Cambodia to Stop Threats of Violence Ahead of Elections

A human rights intervention group of parliamentarians from Southeast Asia and members of the diplomatic community called on Cambodia’s ruling party on Wednesday to stop threatening violence ahead of nationwide commune council elections and expressed concern about the government’s plan to deploy armed forces on election day.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), a group of former and serving Southeast Asian lawmakers, issued a statement expressing “concerns about the repeated threats of violence made by high-ranking members of the ruling party” and calling for an end to “threats, violence, and intimidation.”

The group urged Cambodian authorities to “ensure that the right of Cambodians to elect the candidates of their choice is protected.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for nearly 32 years under the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has warned repeatedly that opposition victories in local elections on June 4 and in parliamentary polls in 2018 will bring war to the country.

Political observers expect the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)—the main opposition party and one of 12 political parties competing for 1,646 commune council seats—to give the CPP a run for its money in the elections.

Phay Siphan, spokesperson of the Office of Council of Ministers and Secretary of State, dismissed APHR’s concerns, saying that Cambodians fully enjoy the right to vote and will be able to freely cast ballots without encountering any issues raised by the group.

He said that comments by Hun Sen and Defense Minister Tea Banh about the possibility of war should the ruling party lose the elections were meant to remind people of CNRP protests that turned violent in the aftermath of highly contested general elections in 2013.

The CNRP participated in demonstrations between July 2013 and July 2014 against Hun Sen’s government following widespread allegations of electoral fraud. The party boycotted parliament, and a government crackdown on striking garment workers who were allied with the protesters in January 2014 led to the deaths of four people and the injuring of dozens of others.

Phay Siphan downplayed APHR’s statement as an opinion piece by a private group that should not be taken into consideration.

He said APHR chairman Charles Santiago, a member of Malaysia’s parliament, “colored and attacked us” in the statement.

“He should spend time helping to improve any setbacks that his country is experiencing and that he has witnessed rather than interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs,” Phay Siphan said.

“ASEAN’s principles don’t allow anyone to interfere in the internal affairs of nations within the ASEAN community,” he added, in a reference to the regional organization comprising 10 Southeast Asian states which facilitates economic and political integration among its members.

Hang Puthea, spokesman of the National Election Committee (NEC), the agency that supervises Cambodia’s national elections, said his organization has taken steps so that all eligible Cambodians can vote and has been working with the armed forces to ensure stability and safety for citizens during the post-election period.

He called it a “positive sign” that the NEC has created a voter list that is up to 98 percent accurate and said his agency is working with election experts from the European Union, United States, and Japan.

“Should there be any cause for concern, one can lodge a complaint so we can investigate it,” he said about possible voting irregularities.

An APHR report on Cambodia titled “Death Knell for Democracy” issued on March 20 drew the ire of the Cambodian government for charging that Hun Sen and the CPP had created a “climate of fear” by expanding their crackdown on CNRP and activists ahead of the commune elections.

The government countered by saying that the ASEAN-linked group’s views did not reflect those of the larger regional body.

Diplomats weigh in

Ambassadors from the EU, U.S. and Japan expressed concern about the Cambodian government’s intent to deploy armed soldiers on June 4, saying that the move could affect the election process and spark fear among voters.

EU Ambassador George Edgar told reporters after a meeting with NEC officials on Wednesday the government’s plan to deploy more armed forces at polling stations than it did during previous elections could make voters jittery about casting ballots.

American Ambassador William A. Heidt said that the U.S. would be watching the elections closely.

“We from the United States are going to send a large delegation of people to the provinces to observe the election,” he told reporters, adding that the U.S. was pleased with the work of the NEC to ensure all eligible voters can cast ballots.

“We look forward to hopefully a very transparent and fair election on Sunday,” Heidt said.

NEC spokesman Hang Puthea told the media that the presence of the armed forces is necessary during the elections to maintain order and security.

“What countries don’t have police or soldiers to protect order and peace?” he asked. “Before, the number [of deployed security forces] was even higher, but this time we are deploying more than 37,000 officers.”

Diplomats from the three countries also asked the NEC to announce the election results on June 4 after the ballots are tallied.

But the NEC said it cannot announce the results the same day because it needs time to investigate any election-related complaints that are filed.

Instead, the agency will announce the election results in three stages—preliminary results, temporary results, and official results—the last of which will be made public about 20 days after election day.

Marked ballots in Battambang

In a related development, Cambodians in Battambang, capital of northwestern Cambodia’s Battambang province, voiced concern on Wednesday about CPP activists who held meetings with villagers to instruct them on how to tick off ruling party candidates on voting ballots.

The residents were especially concerned that the activists collected the marked sample ballots and took them away when they left the villages.

A resident of Ochar who spoke on condition of anonymity told RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday that CPP activists, including village chiefs and candidates standing for commune counselor positions, gathered villagers and gave them tins of canned fish, bread, and a bottle of water in exchange for their ballots.

Ochar commune chief Hor Khoeun acknowledged that his party’s working group instructed residents on how to mark ballots for CPP candidates, saying that there is nothing illegal about the measure.

“Political parties have their own methods,” he said. “As for the CPP, we used sample ballots to teach citizens how to tick off parties so that they know the order of the political parties in the commune [as they will appear on the ballot].”

Reported by Neang Ieng, Chanren Chorn, Vanndeth Van, and Hour Hum for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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Cambodia’s Courts Are Government ‘Tools’ Targeting Activists, Opposition: Report

Cambodia’s government is using its control over the judiciary to silence rights campaigners and opposition activists ahead of local elections, Amnesty International said Tuesday, drawing a rebuke from an official who claimed the report does not reflect reality of the country’s courts.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has influenced the courts to jail at least 27 prominent activists and opposition officials since the country’s 2013 general election, the London-based rights group said in its report entitled “Courts of Injustice,” while hundreds more face “trumped up” charges.

“In Cambodia, the courts are tools in the hands of the government,” Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement accompanying the report.

“Much lip-service is paid to the judiciary’s independence, but the evidence reveals a cynical manipulation of the criminal justice system to serve political goals and silence people whose views the government refuses to tolerate.”

Amnesty said that the government regularly manipulates the justice system to detain people on “groundless charges” before subjecting them to “unfair trials.”

“Far from letting justice take its course on the basis of law, our research shows how procedural rules are bent to serve a set purpose, delivering pre-determined outcomes at the behest of the government,” Patel said, adding that Amnesty knows of no case where a rights defender or activist was acquitted.

Amnesty found that decisions on how cases proceed are often made to coincide with political events—such as demonstrations, elections or negotiations with the opposition—rather than on the basis of an investigation’s progress.

The group urged the government to drop all charges against peaceful activists and immediately release them from prison.

Cambodia’s Office of the Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan on Tuesday called the Amnesty report a “politically motivated” attack against the government, which he told RFA’s Khmer Service is “doing its job in accordance with the law.”

He added that the report “failed to reflect the reality” of Cambodia’s courts and hurt the country’s efforts to build a better judicial system.

“We have no interest in this evaluation because it does not [acknowledge] the court’s procedures, which stand on the basis of facts and merit in each case where a perpetrator is concerned,” Phay Siphan said.

‘Pillars of protection’

But Sam Chankea, spokesperson for local rights group ADHOC, told RFA that Amnesty’s report accurately details how Cambodia’s courts are influenced by politicians and the elite, despite provisions in the constitution meant to ensure the independence of the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government.

“We have seen that so far, the three branches are no longer serving as the triangular foundation of society,” he said.

“They have been transformed into pillars of protection of the government’s power. Hence, we see that the court system is weak and is under the management or instructions of the powerful elites.”

Hun Sen’s government has been quick to dismiss past condemnation of its human rights record and the performance of the judiciary, calling such statements “wild” or “inaccurate.”

Sam Chankea, however, suggested that the government should be more accepting of criticism from both local and international organizations, and work to correct its faults.

Amnesty’s report comes as 12 political parties prepare to compete for 1,646 commune council seats across the country on June 4.

Several officials and supporters of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) have been dragged before the country’s courts on what observers say are politically motivated charges since the CNRP nearly beat Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in 2013 general elections.

Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP a run for its money in Sunday’s polls, foreshadowing a possible opposition win in next year’s national elections.

Reported by Sothearin Yeang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Cambodia Activist Monks Detained For Questioning at Opposition Rally

Authorities in Cambodia’s Oddar Meanchey province briefly detained four activist monks Friday and forced them to delete content from their phones after they posted video on social media of what they said was intimidation of supporters at an opposition campaign event ahead of upcoming local elections.

Luon Savath, known as the “multimedia monk,” told RFA’s Khmer Service that he, Prim Huon, Nop Vanny and Seng Nara were arrested by authorities—including deputy police commissioners and Oddar Meanchey provincial governor Sar Thavy—at around 10:00 a.m., after attending a campaign event led by Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president Kem Sokha in Samroang commune.

The four were questioned after Prim Huon livestreamed on Facebook a video of security personnel using electric batons to block vehicles from accessing the event and demanding to know which commune the CNRP supporters had arrived from.

“Venerable Prim Huon commented [while live streaming], telling people not to vote for any official or party that routinely uses intimidation, threats or [uses its power to perpetrate] attacks against its own citizens,” Luon Savath said.

“A police officer standing nearby only heard Venerable Prim Huon say the word ‘attacks’ and accused him of spreading falsehoods.”

The four monks were released around 1:00 p.m. after agreeing to delete videos they had shot and promising not to post any more material to social media about the event.

RFA was unable to contact Sar Thavy or the deputy police commissioners present at their arrest for further details about the incident.

The Phnom Penh Post cited a now-deleted Facebook video posted by Luon Savath, in which he speaks with Sar Thavy during the initial confrontation, saying that the monks supported neither the CNRP or the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

“We are not broadcasting things that are contrary to or distort the facts. And we just broadcast it, and if it is right or wrong the public will know,” the Post quoted Luon Savath as saying in the video.

Other harassment

The detention of the four monks was only one of several incidents documented on Friday of authorities harassing people present at the opposition rally in Oddar Meanchey.

Oddar Meanchey provincial ADHOC coordinator Srey Naren, who was present when the four monks were arrested, told RFA that provincial deputy police commissioner Puth Ngob ordered his men to prevent him from monitoring their questioning.

Mounh Sarath, head of the provincial CNRP taskforce, told the Post that authorities attempted to prevent organizers from setting up a marquee for the campaign event in Samroang commune, had blared loudspeakers in order to drown out Kem Sokha’s speech, and had set up “illegal checkpoints”—blocking roads and forcing supporters to walk for many miles to the rally.

The campaign event had prior approval from the provincial election committee, he added.

Observers say the CNRP—one of 12 political parties competing for 1,646 commune council seats—could give the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) a run for its money in the June polls, foreshadowing a possible CNRP win in national elections scheduled for 2018.

Reported by Savyouth Hang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Interview: 'They Are Afraid of my Shadow And my Voice or Anything Related to my Name'

Former Cambodia National Rescue Party President Sam Rainsy, who has been forced to live in exile since 2015 in the face of questionable defamation charges, spoke with reporter Vuthy Huot of Radio Free Asia’s Khmer Service by telephone from Massachusetts on Friday to discuss his life and activities after he was forced by the government in February to leave his CNRP post. He also spoke about local elections on June 4 that are seen as a bellwether for national elections in 2018.

RFA: How is your life after resigning from the position of CNRP president?

Sam Rainsy: I want to state that even though I forced myself to resign from being the CNRP president, my heart still yearns to rescue the nation 100 percent. My forced resignation was in order to protect the CNRP so that the other side could not use my personal issues as a pretext for dissolving the CNRP. I was the one who initiated the establishment of the CNRP. Considering me as though I am a parent who produced a child and devotes everything for the long life of that child. Hence, I don’t regret any position as I have to devote everything including my own life so long as our nation is alive, sustained and prosperous. The CNRP is the only means of rescuing our nation. So, again, I don’t have any regret so long as the CNRP retains its role as the single hope for Cambodian citizens, patriots and justice lovers. I would like to appeal to our fellow citizens and our young people, nephews and nieces, to go to vote for the CNRP so that we can rescue our nation together to make it become a prosperous nation like other civilized countries in the world.

RFA: During the election campaign, current CNRP President Kem Sokha called on the citizens to vote for the CNRP if they want to witness Sam Rainsy’s return to Cambodia. As for now, will you return to Cambodia to lead the party if the CNRP wins the election?

Sam Rainsy: I’ve always wanted to return to my home country now. Yet the Phnom Penh government has banned all airline companies from allowing me to board any plane. They said that they won’t allow any plane carrying Sam Rainsy to land in Cambodia. They won’t even allow any persons boarding the plane to be able to leave the plane as they will send the plane back to its point of origin. So no airline dares to accept me. If the government was courageous, they would not bar me from returning to my own country since it violates the laws and the constitution. No government is entitled to prevent its own citizens from returning to their own home country. Our fellow citizens can make a judgment on this issue. This government is very afraid and nervous of my presence. They are not brave enough and do not possess any sporting spirit for fair competition. They wouldn’t need to use such a puppet court to convict me so that I am not able to compete with them. This is so terrible. So leave it to our citizens to judge.

RFA: In the event that the CNRP wins the upcoming elections, and things change, and you can return to Cambodia, will you lead the government or the CNRP once again?

Sam Rainsy: The most important thing is the will of the people. When the majority of the people vote for the CNRP, it means that the citizens want the CNRP to lead the country. First, in 2017 to lead at the commune/sangkat level. With the same level of support in 2018, the CNRP can lead the new government. Hence, when we have a new government led by the CNRP, we can request the King to help intervene in settling my past cases and we will make a new law to protect citizens’ rights and freedom of expression, and those of our lawmakers as well so that they can protect the citizens who are subject to injustice and other victims. I myself along with my colleagues who dare to speak up for our citizens and those victims didn’t do anything wrong. They just convicted us, saying that we had committed offenses so that I cannot take part in the election or return to Cambodia. These are all just pretexts to prevent their challenger from being able to take part in the competition with them since they are very afraid of us and they are cowards. I request that all of our citizens go to vote on election day. When they see the CNRP receive massive support from the people, I believe that the situation will start to change. And I will try to return to Cambodia when our citizens vote for the CNRP at a maximum level.

RFA: Are you standing behind the CNRP acting as the party’s supreme advisor or being an unofficial leader of the CNRP?

Sam Rainsy: This depends on the CNRP and its leadership. Let them consider it. But for now, what we need to do is to ensure that our citizens go to vote and bring about victory for the CNRP. Other remaining issues can be settled easily once we gain a good number of our own commune/sangkat chiefs. When they see the landslide support for the CNRP, the other side will surely weaken in power. By then we will have an opportunity for dialogue. Now they are boastful, saying that they represent the majority. Just wait and see in the next couple of days which party enjoys majority support at the commune/sangkat level, and next year at the national level. When we have a majority voice, they won’t have the ability to disturb or harass us again. Then the CNRP will make its own internal decision whether it wants anyone to hold any position or not at all. As long as we are the ones who make our own decisions, as long as we have not been forced to follow their orders. When we follow their orders, it damages not only our interest, but also the interest of the nation as a whole.

RFA: Besides appealing to Cambodian citizens to vote for the CNRP so that you can return, have you sought any negotiations with the ruling party so that you can return?

Sam Rainsy: I believe that for now what is crucial is that we must give priority to the election process. We don’t need to negotiate at this time. Let the citizens decide and make their own judgments. The courts in Cambodia cannot be accepted. The ones who make the final decision are the citizens who are the owners of the territory. Please my fellow citizens go to vote. You are the representatives of Cambodia; you are the one who make the decision for the future of the country so that you don’t allow such corrupted and unjust courts decide the cases of the country’s patriots. So you as the citizens go to vote. You are the court of last resort and the people’s court that makes a decision via elections.

RFA: The NEC does not permit any airing of video clips by the CNRP containing your message. What is your reaction to such a ban?

Sam Rainsy: The current government nowadays is afraid of me. They are afraid of my shadow and my voice or anything related to my name. They are very afraid, just like children afraid of a giant. So let the citizens make their own judgment against those who do evil things against their own citizens, compatriots. They are afraid of those who love justice, democracy and patriotic movements. So you see … they don’t have any new ideas to present to the citizens. They know that the citizens don’t like them and don’t believe in them, so they don’t have anything to say except using threats of war, or threats to eliminate this or that. I feel such pity for our citizens who are the victims, including civil society members, members of national assembly and the senate from the CNRP who are now in jail. These people didn’t commit any crime. I insist our citizens to go to vote in this local election. Do not wait until next year for the national election by saying that this local election is not important. Please don’t think like this. We have to do it step by step. We have to go vote and the first step is to change local leadership so that later we can change the leader at the national level. We cannot directly change the national leader at once. We have to vote for change of commune/sangkat leaders, to show our force at the local level so that we can arrange for a better national election towards our final victory for the Cambodian citizens. So please do go to vote on June 4.

Translated by Sovannarith Keo.

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PM Hun Sen Repeats Threat of War if His Party Loses Elections

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday repeated his warning that opposition victories in local elections next month and parliamentary polls in 2018 would bring war to the country, saying his ruling Cambodian People’s Party could lose patience and “burn down your homes.”

Hun Sen, who has ruled the Southeast Asian country since 1985, used a three-hour speech to some 4,000 Christians in Phnom Penh, to drive home a threat that he has made several times in the run up to the June 4 commune elections.

“War will happen if the CPP loses control,” he said in a speech at Koh Pich Convention Center in the capital.

Hun Sen warned the opposition party not to dare trying to wage war, saying that all his sons are soldiers.

“All of Hun Sen’s sons are soldiers, and one of them even graduated from West Point. So don’t agitate for war!” he said.

He noted that Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a former prime minister whose royalist party Hun Sen destroyed in a violent coup in the 1990s, was “also dispirited” in defeat.

“Words can cause war if the CPP loses patience and goes to your homes and burns down your homes,” Hun Sen added.

The main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which has said its electoral success would benefit all Cambodians, declined to take Hun Sen’s bait, noting he had issued such threats before.

“Whatever he wants to say, let him say it alone. I just wish to call on our citizens to retain their spirit and take part in the election,” said CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann.

Hun Sen’s latest war threat came 10 days after his defense minister, Tea Banh, warned that the army will “smash the teeth” of anyone protesting a win by the ruling party in the June 4 elections.

“If you lose the elections and contest the results by taking to the streets to protest, we will smash your teeth,” the defense minister said.  “I’m warning you in strong terms that we won’t allow such protests again.”

Although Cambodia’s 2015 election law forbids officials and civil servants from making threats on lives or property, a spokesman for the National Election Committee said it will not look into Hun Sen’s threats unless a complaint is filed by a political party.

“Without a complaint, the NEC will not take any action. The important thing is harmony among the Khmers at this time.” said NEC spokesman Hang Puthea.

Observers say the CNRP—one of 12 political parties competing for 1,646 commune council seats—could give the CPP a run for its money in the June polls, foreshadowing a possible CNRP win in national elections scheduled for 2018.

Reported by Vuthy Tha, Sonorng Khe and Maly Leng for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Paul Eckert.

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Interview: ‘When Our Citizens Are Empowered, They Can Protect Their Own Interests’

Kem Sokha, president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) spoke with reporter Hour Hum of Radio Free Asia’s Khmer Service by telephone on Wednesday to discuss his party’s campaign platform ahead of upcoming local elections on June 4—seen as a bellwether for national elections in 2018.

The opposition leader is in the midst of his third trip through Cambodia since emerging from hiding at CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh after receiving a royal pardon in December. Kem Sokha had been given a five-month jail sentence for ignoring court orders to appear as a witness in a pair of defamation cases related to his alleged affair with a hairdresser—legal issues he had always maintained were politically motivated.

RFA: After having conducted campaign rallies in a number of provinces and cities over the past five days, do you see the number of CNRP supporters increasing? If so, do you have any supporting evidence?

Kem Sokha: Over the past five days, I met with citizens at several meeting and rally events in up to 12 provinces … Among these 12 provinces, my observation is that, first, the number of our supporters and those in favor of the CNRP’s political platform are increasing. These people are more resolute and firm in their beliefs than ever before … I have witnessed this with my own eyes, because I’m not just sitting around and waiting for reports from party members and provincial leaders. As a leader, I, Kem Sokha, must witness every place on my own.

RFA: During my interview with you in the radio program earlier, you said that during this commune council election—the first in which the CNRP will participate with candidates running in all 1,646 communes nationwide—you expect your party will win up to 60 percent of the seats. How crucial is it for the CNRP to do so?

Kem Sokha: Firstly, it is crucial for the citizens. The citizens understand clearly that good commune leaders will bring them more benefits. So the selection of leaders will affect their livelihoods. For instance, the CNRP will prioritize issuing certificates without discrimination or extra fees and in a timely manner if we win the election … and empower citizens to participate in decision-making prior to making any development … Secondly, it will not only affect the citizens, it affects democracy [in Cambodia] as a whole. Should the CNRP win more communes, our local democracy will become stronger. We will be able to make the foundation of our local democracy stronger, and a country with strong local democracy will have strong national democracy. Thirdly, it is important for the CNRP. If we win more communes at the local level, we will definitely win more seats at the national level … and have more officials at the district, provincial, and parliamentary levels.

RFA: For this commune election, citizens who spoke with RFA’s Khmer Service always said they must vote for incumbents, because if they don’t, the authorities won’t issue necessary licenses or certificates for them. What do you have to say to these people?

Kem Sokha: This is the reason that citizens need to vote for change. If [incumbents] issue certificates [efficiently], then their constituents should certainly support them again. But if there is any discrimination [in issuing certificates], then citizens must vote for change.

RFA: We’ve noticed that the CPP continues the practice of distributing gifts [to win votes] … How about the CNRP? Will your party have anything to distribute?

Kem Sokha: The citizens now are smarter. They know how to compare and offset—how to judge … when they have been given little, but what has been taken back is more … [Gifts] cannot offset what has been lost or what they need [and don’t get].

RFA: Why do you think it is important for the citizens to join in decision-making from the local level upwards?

Kem Sokha: When our citizens are empowered, they can protect their own interests. When they don’t have power, they lose their interests and cannot protect them. This is a basic concept in a democratic society.

RFA: If a CNRP candidate is elected commune chief and residents want them removed because they cannot properly perform their work, but the party is still in favor of them, who wins—the party or the people?

Kem Sokha: Citizens can also make judgments by scoring the work of CNRP commune chiefs … whether they have properly implemented the platform of the party and whether they respect the will of the citizens. We collect the score each year. If the score is low, we will send our disciplinary committee to evaluate [them] … If the citizens are not satisfied with any individual, the CNRP, which always respects the will of the people, must dare to make changes.

RFA: If the CNRP wins the commune election, to what extent can its commune chiefs carry out development?

Kem Sokha: Firstly, there are things we can do without having to spend money … That is what we can do by empowering the lives of our citizens. Secondly … we can do small things, such as issuing certificates [effectively]. As for major developments inside the communes—if the CNRP wins the national election in 2018, we will allocate U.S. $500,000 from the national budget to each commune in the country, regardless of the chief’s party affiliation, and I believe this will certainly allow us to make substantial developments for the nation and our citizens.

Translated by Sovannarith Keo.

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