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What’s Next for Kem Sokha and Cambodia’s Opposition?

The anniversary of the Cambodian opposition leader’s detention this week raises questions about his future.

David Hutt
What’s Next for Kem Sokha and Cambodia’s Opposition?
Credit: Flickr/Maina Kiai

On September 2, 2017, the Cambodia opposition leader Kem Sokha was awoken around midnight to the sound of the police battering on his doors. Hauled in on charges of treason, he watched from prison as two months later his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was forcibly dissolved by the Supreme Court on allegations of plotting a coup.

Monday marked the second anniversary of Kem Sokha’s detention. Last September, he was released from jail but only under de-facto house arrest, the terms of which are not a great deal better than prison. There was no major protest in support of Kem Sokha on Monday, while the government-friendly newspapers overlooked it — the Phnom Penh Post gave just 340 words for an article on this anniversary; the Khmer Times didn’t even bother with an article.

But Kem Sokha’s bravery and stoicism under pressure remain a major irritant for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). There are likely two reasons why Kem Sokha hasn’t yet been brought to trial. The government probably knows it doesn’t have any evidence to convict him, and doesn’t want international ridicule by going to trial with laughable evidence – show trials will only have negative effects as the Cambodian government is under considerable pressure from the international community. A spokesperson for the Justice Ministry told RFA last month: “Unless new and convincing evidence is produced to rebut the current legal and factual grounds for the charges, the request [to end the case against him] appears weak and unsubstantiated.” Forget the idea of innocent until proven guilty was the apparent message.

Prime Minister Hun Sen also probably thought that Kem Sokha would have sought clemency by now, and exchanged his political principles for his freedom. But he has shown himself a tough operator for decades. In 1995, after drawing attention to illegal prisons still in use, a colleague at the UN “said they planned to do something, possibly kill me, on Khmer New Year Day in 1995, with a grenade attack or something similar. So it was suggested to me that I should leave, and I went to the United States for a while, until it was safe to return,” he has written. Then, when he lost his parliamentary immunity after losing his parliamentary seat in the 1998 election, Hun Sen “announced on TV, to the people, that I would be arrested on the 24 September 1998.” He added: “I was able to go free after Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh agreed to release me but on condition that I did not undertake a range of activities, especially political activities. My response was no, I must continue my activities,” he wrote. He did so, but only after joining the Funcinpec party and becoming is deputy secretary-general.

He was also arrested in 2005 on incitement charges for organizing a Human Rights Day event, and upon release after several months in jail formed the Human Rights Party. And he spent much of 2016 hiding in the CNRP’s Phnom Penh headquarters to avoid a court summons over a politically motivated case. Although he accepted a royal pardon from Hun Sen later in the year, the way he threw himself at the 2017 local elections must have been a disappointment for the prime minister, who probably expected the royal pardon was buying Kem Sokha’s silence.

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Hun Sen may have also hoped that Kem Sokha’s poor health would have become even worse by now. His lawyers restated this week that “his health requires a medical specialist. His health problem has not been checked on or treated. The authorities know about the situation regarding his health and the prescriptions he needs from the specialist.” But, now, the longer Hun Sen keeps Kem Sokha in detention, the weaker the premier looks.

The European Union hasn’t yet lost its determination to see Kem Sokha released, while the U.S. Congress has tabled even more punitive bills that could sanction Cambodian officials. Whichever way you look at it, Hun Sen has mishandled politics the last two years – he has misread Western governments, thought Chinese investment would be welcomed by Cambodians, and is now jeopardizing the economy so that he can remain in power. Small wonder there are grumbles within his party over his leadership.

And then there is the very real possibility that all of this was done simply so he could hand over power to one of his children – most likely his eldest Hun Manet, now the de-facto military chief. To do so, he needed a pacified political scene (none of his children has any experience outside of his shadow) and stable foreign policy. It is very likely that Hun Sen decided to dissolve the CNRP and arrest Kem Sokha, firstly, so that the CPP didn’t lose the 2018 election and, second, so Hun Manet wouldn’t face a strong political opposition once he took the reins of government. Loyal and long-serving CPP members must be frustrated at the problems the party now finds itself in, caused by the premier’s selfish, genealogical desires. And who knows how much sympathy Kem Sokha has from among the CPP rank-and-file, or even some top brass?

Can we expect to mark a third anniversary of Kem Sokha’s detention in 2020? Sam Rainsy, the opposition figurehead and CNRP’s acting-president, now swears he will return to Cambodia from exile on November 9, the country’s Independent Day. Hun Sen swears to arrest him the moment he steps foot on Cambodian soil. Rainsy reckons he will be greeted by up to 1 million supporters who will march on Phnom Penh and demand Hun Sen’s resignation. Hun Sen reckons Sam Rainsy is deceiving himself and few people will turn out to mark his return – and those who do will be arrested, too. Given that Sam Rainsy has made and broke similar promises before, one shouldn’t bear too much confidence until he is on board a Cambodia-bound flight.

If Sam Rainsy does return and, in the most unlikely scenario imaginable, topples Hun Sen, Kem Sokha could be free within a few months. More likely, however, is that Sam Rainsy is arrested. But this would force the hand of Western nations – the EU review came to an end in mid-August and Brussels is now preparing its report. Congresspeople in the United States could put a little more haste into the numerous punitive bills against Cambodia. If that was to happen, however, there is even less chance of the courts holding Kem Sokha’s trial anytime soon – and even less chance of them acquitting him. Though, don’t put it past Hun Sen to arrest Sam Rainsy and then quickly release Kem Sokha, which would throw the opposition party into disarray.

That said, opposition supporters are now growing so frustrated with Sam Rainsy and his constant promises – as well as his even more hostile tone, complete with conspiracy theories and pugilist clichés – that if the CNRP was reformed, Kem Sokha would probably win the support of most to become its leader again.