Cambodian authorities have launched a disinformation campaign to intimidate critics ahead of the planned return this week from self-exile of the acting head of the country’s main opposition group.

The campaign has mostly revolved around mischaracterizing statements from Cambodia National Rescue Party co-founder Sam Rainsy. Authorities have also released over 30 seemingly forced “confession” videos from his supporters.

Following a strong showing in the 2017 commune elections, the CNRP was dissolved for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, allowing Prime Minister Hun Sen to claim all 125 seats in parliament.

Party president Kem Sokha was arrested for treason and served one year in prison before being transferred to house arrest where he remains today. Rainsy, who fled the country to avoid similarly politically motivated convictions in 2015, has now pledged to return on November 9.

Rainsy’s return has been labeled a coup attempt, and Cambodians have been warned that they will face five to ten years in prison for supporting it. Dozens of CNRP supporters have been arrested in recent weeks, with total detainees at over 50 this year.

In an attempt to intimidate critics, the government’s propaganda arm, the Press and Quick Reaction Unit, recently began releasing videos of CNRP supporters “confessing” to participating in the coup and condemning Rainsy.

Former CNRP commune chief Seng Sokhorn turned herself in on October 10, with the PQRU releasing a video of her confessing that same day.

In her video, where she seems to be reading an off-camera script, Sokhorn said she first joined the CNRP because she believed Rainsy did good things for the community. She said recently, Rainsy has tried to “persuade people to stand up, persuade army officials to go against the government, and look down on the king”.

Sokhorn then said she understands now that these “activities are treason”. “I want to condemn all the activities that Sam Rainsy has done,” she said. “Citizens who walk the wrong way like I did, please turn back to support the government and help ensure and protect the security of Cambodia.”

The video was also posted to Facebook by pro-government news outlet Fresh News. There, most of the commenters expressed pity for Sokhorn and claimed she was reading a pre-written message. Some called it a “trick” and a “sham”.

Rainsy said the confessions were a “terrifying and disgusting” strategy and compared them to forced confessions extracted from prisoners under the Khmer Rouge.

“They are all fake confessions made under duress,” he said in an email to Coda. 

Digital spaces are tightly controlled by authorities in Cambodia. Coda Story recently published an account of phone taps and conversation leaks which were posted online in an attempt to silence critics of the government.

Rainsy’s pledge to return to Cambodia on November 9, during annual Independence Day celebrations, has been met with skepticism, as it marks the third time he has promised to return this year. The government, however, seems to be taking it seriously, initiating what human rights groups have called the most repressive crackdown in years.

Sokhorn was released on bail, while other activists have been sent to pre-trial detention. Since then, Fresh News has published at least 13 other confession videos.

Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the government continues to “harass members of the opposition”, citing a recent “spike in the arbitrary arrest and detention of CNRP activists”.

“The Royal Government of Cambodia must ensure adherence to international human rights standards at all times, including the principle that no statements obtained illegally, including forced confessions, are admissible in judicial proceedings,” she said via email.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has encouraged Rainsy supporters to confess to avoid punishment.

“If you have already unintentionally participated, you can confess and will be exempt from punishment,” Hun Sen said in a recent speech.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the confessions are “clearly forced”, but may “backfire”.

“It will remind some of the bad old days of communist rule, when self-criticism and confessions underpinned a repressive political order,” he said, comparing it to other single party dictatorships like China, Vietnam, and North Korea.

The PQRU, which is under the auspices of the Council of Ministers, has a history of spreading fake news against the CNRP.

Weeks before the CNRP’s dissolution, the PQRU broadcast a 45-minute long video attempting to link the opposition to color revolutions in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

The video showed the clenched fist logo of Canvas, an organization that participated in the mostly peaceful overthrow of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. Next, the video showed images of CNRP figures holding clenched fists, attempting to link the two.

The attempt to link activities by opposition groups to revolutions in the Middle East and Eastern Europe is not new. In 2018, the Cambodian government released a book detailing efforts to root out foreign influence. The book also criticized foreign media outlets like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia for exaggerating events “in order to poison the social environment.” 

Cambodian authorities have also weighed in on the recent anti-government protests in Hong Kong which have seen demonstrators rally against China’s perceived meddling in the former British colony. Earlier this summer, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation expressed support for China’s “one country, two systems” principle, and said it wanted to see a return to normality in Hong Kong.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the video confessions were “voluntarily” given.

“These are not legitimate political activities, it’s a coup d’etat,” he claimed in a recent interview. Siphan denied that it was inappropriate to film and broadcast confessions.

“This is not a private matter, it’s a public matter. We have to protect against anyone who tries to topple the legitimate government,” he said.

Government counter initiatives also include mischaracterizing comments by Rainsy, and pushing false narratives. While Rainsy has called for a “popular uprising” and urged members of the armed forces to defect — he explicitly called for nonviolent action. Hun Sen, however, accused him of “an armed rebellion” and threatened to deploy the armed forces.

Rainsy said the government was adopting tactics previously used by the Khmer Rouge. “Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge military commander, has obviously retained the Khmer Rouge mentality and mindset,” he wrote.