Thach Setha, Candllelight Party VP

Yesterday, the OI blog reported on the controversial arrest of Candlelight Party leader, Thach Setha, alleged of  passing bad cheques, in 2019 – over three years ago. The freer media noticed discrepancies such as the cheques’ not being signed. Others noted the timing in the lead-up to the July 2023 national elections and that Candlelight has become the number one opposition party after an impressive showing in local elections last year.  The Cambodia People’s Party, headed since 1993 by  Prime Minister Hun Sen, denied any political interference.

The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) has issued an important statement calling for the attention of the international community. Sadly, such calls tend to get the answering service.


Our questions:

Is the world paying attention? 

The American-led Summit of Democracies will be held on March 29-30 in Costa Rica and the European-led Alliance of Democracies’ Copenhagen Democracy Summit on May 15-16. Will these summits make clear statements of support for opposition leaders, such as Thach Setha, facing irregular loss of freedom by their governments?

Will they name names and highlight the facts of opposition leaders who are the real frontline of democracy? There is no effective democracy without free opposition leaders.

It is not enough to swear allegiance to democracy. The call to duty requires helping those who make the deep sacrifices.

It’s not easy for the international community to help in every single specific case.  Unanimity is rare. Autocratic governments bristle at any outside  statement  about their “domestic affairs” or police actions   or legal  processes. To comment is not seen as diplomatic. There are too many cases to handle  usefully. Some are not well-documented and others ambiguous. The international media wants saints and heroes. Bigger issues can get lost by  focusing on victims.  Nuances get lost in the headlines. 

But as Nelson Mandela proved, individuals, even politicians, can rise to become symbols of great causes from anti-apartheid to genocide prevention to the right to cast a vote. People remember people better than the foreign communiques that supported their causes. But the foreign communiqués helped to keep these opposition leaders,  their aspirations and democracy alive. 

The world must take  these one step at a time. But we must speak out for one captive then another. 

So close to the national elections, jailing the Candlelight Party’ Thach Setha for pretrial detention, on charges that carry two to five years in prison look desperate on the part of Prime Minister Hun Sen, his party and his government. It stains reputation of Cambodia’s legal system.

Before these meeting in Costa-Rica and Copenhagen, let’s start bringing home democracy’s prisoners of war. The term POW may jar our ears. Listen to the autocrats’ language,  they speak with the tropes of war. 

Opposition International is compiling a list of opposition figures either in jail or facing  detention who deserve particular attention to their case.  It will be representative before it ever becomes  exhaustive, unfortunately.

Please send us any suggestions for individuals. All information will be handled confidentially. 

Meanwhile, we hope that we will not have to put Thach Setha’s name on that list. We call for the immediate release of Thach Setha of the Candlelight Party and fair proceedings in the Cambodia’s justice system.

Without a strong opposition voice that are actually heard, Cambodia will have difficulty claiming to be a democracy where elections are fair.