ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

When Hun Sen Met Kem Sokha

The meeting between Hun Sen and the opposition-leader-turned-treason-suspect is a political signal — but of what?

David Hutt
When Hun Sen Met Kem Sokha

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, talks with dissolved main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha at the mourning ceremony of Hun Sen’s mother in-law, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 5, 2020.

Credit: Pool photo via AP

Was it really as newsworthy as it became that, on May 5, former opposition leader Kem Sokha, who remains on trial for treason, met with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at a funeral ceremony for the first lady’s mother?

It was their first meeting in four years, and their first since Kem Sokha was arrested on spurious treason charges in September 2017. Months later, his opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was forcibly dissolved on equally spurious charges of plotting a U.S.-backed coup.

Within days of the meeting, Kem Sokha – who is still technically under house arrest and whose trial, which began in January, has been stalled by the coronavirus crisis – met with the EU and German ambassadors. He also met with the French ambassador this week.

Naturally, all this has got people talking. Is this the beginning of a “culture of dialogue 2.0,” a reference to the ill-fated comprise between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and CNRP between 2014 and 2016? Does this indicate that Kem Sokha’s ordeal is nearing an end? Voice of America chose to run a piece with the headline, “Hopes of a Political Compromise are Kindled as Kem Sokha and Hun Sen Meet.” Does it indicate that Hun Sen wants to wrap up Kem Sokha’s trial quickly, and will look favorably upon his rival?

The CPP has been coy. “We, the CPP, still do not view this as a political breakthrough,” claimed party spokesperson Sok Eysan. We don’t know what was discussed, but in a meeting that was said to last 50 minutes, and where Kem Sokha was seen making notes, we can assume the topic of politics was broached. Still, it is possible to read something into this event without the content.

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For starters, one must remember that Kem Sokha met with Hun Sen at a funeral ceremony for the prime minister’s mother-in-law, who had passed away days earlier. Despite the rough-and-tumble of Cambodian politics, rivals usually show compassion at such events. Just one week before Sam Rainsy, the other CNRP leader, was allowed to return from his second stint in exile in July 2013, he had sent Hun Sen a condolence letter following the death of the prime minister’s father. But his return must have been planned in advance. After Sam Rainsy fled into his latest stint in exile in late 2015, Hun Sen had his own son attend the funeral of Sam Rainsy’s mother-in-law the following year.

Along with several other analysts, I’ve long argued that Kem Sokha is likely to end up receiving a pardon from Hun Sen, which will probably come quickly after a conviction for treason. (Hun Sen gave Kem Sokha a pardon in 2017 over a much less serious case.)

In return for his freedom, Kem Sokha will likely have to promise not to engage in oppositional politics. Maybe he will also be expected to plead with the European Union not to go through with its pledge to restore tariffs on Cambodian exports later this year, in retaliation for political deterioration in Cambodia and, namely, his own arrest. Kem Sokha’s choice of which foreign ambassadors to meet after the funeral meet – solely European ones – may have been indicative of that. Other pundits have put two and two together, as well.

If this is achieved, Hun Sen will have defanged the CNRP, essentially driving an immovable wedge between the Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, the party’s grandees, and their supporters. It’s difficult to see how the party can even try to come back from exile and then flourish without Kem Sokha.

But, as I’ve argued before, Hun Sen has a problem. In the past, when he sought to scare his rivals – such as by forcing Sam Rainsy into exile on three occasions, and forcing Kem Sokha to spend much of 2016 hiding in the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh to avoid a trial– he did so with relatively minor threats. Kem Sokha hid for parts of 2016 over allegations, put out by CPP-controlled prosecutors and judges, that NGOs were involving in “bribing” his alleged mistress. In effect, then, they were allegations that could be swept under the rug once Hun Sen felt the time was right. But treason is another matter.

If Kem Sokha isn’t prosecuted for treason, it shows the Cambodian people and the world that Hun Sen’s ruling party was lying all along about allegations that the CNRP was plotting a coup – and, therefore, the last three years of democratic deterioration was built on a lie. If he is convicted but swiftly pardoned, however, Hun Sen needs to show that Kem Sokha is no longer a political threat. This, then, requires Hun Sen to walk a fine line; how to offer clemency for an alleged traitor.

In doing so, Hun Sen will attempt to consolidate the image he has been trying to cultivate for decades, as a leader so powerful yet so modest that he can pardon his foes and rehabilitate his enemies; a benevolent dictator, a legitimate political king.

Indeed, the buzzword for party officials and supporters is that a deal between Hun Sen and Kem Sokah would mean “national reconciliation” – a laughable claim that, somehow, reconciliation means arresting your opponent on spurious charges, then convicting him, then pardoning him, and then forcing him to quit politics.

Wasn’t this what Hun Sen was doing at the funeral meeting last week? Remember the optics: a grieving son-in-law consoled by a political adversary during a time of a health and economic crisis. (“Sokha visits grieving PM, treason trial to continue,” ran a Phnom Penh Post headline.) The meeting must also have been planned in advance since the funeral was held at Hun Sen’s official residence near Independence Monument in Phnom Penh, which would have required some protocol for a suspected traitor’s attendance. It also happens that photographers from several news agencies and newspapers were ready at the door to snap Kem Sokha’s arrival, as well as his interior meeting with Hun Sen. Kem Sokha also came accompanied by his defense lawyers, former CNRP lawmaker Yem Ponharith, and his aide-de-camp Muth Chantha, while several senior government officials, including Bin Chin, a deputy prime minister and head of the Cabinet, were also present.

What was the PR outcome of the meeting? For Hun Sen, it showed his humility and power. Humble, indeed, because he was pictured grieving for his mother-in-law, dressed in white mourning robes – an image that every Cambodian can relate to – while his adversary, wearing a smart black suit, consoled him. And powerful because images showed him as a kindhearted strongman, who is as strict as forgiving with his enemies.

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In many ways, the importance of their funeral meet will be become apparent in hindsight. The big question is whether Hun Sen wants to end the Kem Sokha saga early, as the meeting might indicate, or let it drag on.

Anecdotal evidence suggests much of the Cambodian public is happy with his government’s handling of the COVID-19 health crisis, though public approval is certain to wane in the coming months as the corollary economic crisis worsens, as more businesses go under and people lose their jobs, and as more hardship sets in. Current economic forecasts, which are probably overly optimistic, contend economic growth levels won’t recover to pre-coronavirus levels until at least 2022.

By convicting and pardoning Kem Sokha soon, it might win Hun Sen even more public applause in a the short term – and it might prompt the EU to forestall its planned imposition of tariffs on some Cambodian exports later this year. But wait a little longer, and his pardon could be a good news story brought out if the public turns against the government later this year. In either case, waiting does Hun Sen no harm.