RFA Khmer / 25-1-2021
Translated by Sok Ry Sum and Keo Sovannarith. English by Eugene Whong

Watchdogs and political analysts are calling on the leader of Cambodia’s banned main opposition party to push for a faster trial in an effort to solve political deadlock so the country can move on, the analysts told RFA.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017, two months after the arrest of party leader and co-founder Kem Sokha for his role in an alleged scheme to topple Prime Minister Hun Sen with the help of the U.S. government.

His trial began on Jan. 15, 2020 but was suspended in March on the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic, and Hun Sen has hinted that it may not resume for years, and may not conclude until 2024, long after the next election cycle.

Though no longer under de-facto house arrest, Kem Sokha remains under judicial supervision pending the outcome of his trial, and must refrain from engaging in political activities within Cambodia, though he recently met with the ambassador from the European Union. Political analysts say that he should return to political life anyway.

“As a politician, he should do political activities when he has a chance,” political science expert Ek Sobvannara told RFA’s Khmer Service. “Normally when a political opponent is being pressured by another and he does not fight to stand up, the pressure only intensifies. But if he stands up against the pressure, the public and the international community will see this and demand his freedom. But if he does nothing, nobody will pay attention to him,” he said.

Ek Sobvannara said that Kem Sokha should push for an early renewal of his trial and should continue in political life and diplomatic engagement, as those are rights allowed by Cambodia’s constitution.

Political analyst Seng Sary told RFA that Kem Sokha is in a lose-lose situation, however. He could be allowed by Hun Sen to participate in upcoming elections in 2022 and 2023 without the CNRP’s acting president Sam Rainsy, who remains in self-exile after attempts to return to Cambodia in late 2019 failed. A return to political life in this manner would, however, effectively split the opposition into two smaller parties.

“This means that if Kem Sokha decided to break away from Sam Rainsy, politically he would die. If he sticks with Sam Rainsy, he will have a small percentage of a possibility to return to politics,” Seng Sary said. “Hun Sen has already declared that Kem Sokha’s case could be solved by 2024. Therefore, Kem Sokha is in a situation where if he goes into the water he will be attacked by a crocodile, and he will be attacked by a tiger if he stays on land.”

Kem Sokha’s daughter Kem Monovithya, recently tweeted that her father would lead an opposition party separate from the CNRP in future elections, an idea that was dismissed by Sam Rainsy in an RFA interview last week.

The potential for infighting in the CNRP is very real according to Men Nath, president of the Norway-based Cambodia Watchdog Council. Men Nath told RFA that the CNRP would be better served by reconciling differences among its party members before trying to engage with Hun Sen for national reconciliation.

Kem Sokha shouldn’t be pushing himself to live within the red lines they drew for him. Every word they speak is about him following the law,” Men Nath said. “What law are they talking about when the court only regurgitates theories laid out by Hun Sen? They should start a campaign demanding the return of political rights and freedom to everyone,” he said, urging that engagement with Hun Sen be framed not as a negotiation, but merely as a dialogue to put national interests first.

Meach Sovannara, a CNRP officer close to Kem Sokha, told RFA that Kem Sokha will continue to engage with the international community so that the CNRP would be able to join in the 2022 election, and that there is therefore no need to play into Hun Sen’s hands.

“This week and next week, Kem Sohka will meet with many ambassadors from powerful nations. We see this as a way to solve our political problems peacefully,” Meach Sovannara said. “From what I see, I don’t want the head of a political party to write a letter to ask for negotiations or to beg for a pardon. That would not be transparent in the view of the people, who are the masters of the votes,” he said.

On Monday, the EU’s Ambassador Carmen Moreno met with Kem Sokha at his residence in Phnom Penh, with Kem Sokha writing afterward in a Facebook post that the Ambassador lauded his recent travels around Cambodia in which he met with Cambodian citizens. The Ambassador also applauded his determination to remain nonviolent and commitment to human rights and democracy as he strives to put Cambodian interests first.

While Kem Sokha is out on bail awaiting his trial, his political activities are restricted, and he has largely involved himself in humanitarian work. But the opposition chief has said that even such activities are viewed with suspicion by the CPP.

Violence against CNRP members

Local human rights groups have meanwhile expressed their concerns about continuing physical assaults by unidentified suspects against opposition activists and their relatives.

As of January 25, nearly 30 CNRP activists, their relatives and advocates have reported being beaten by anonymous individuals, resulting in serious injuries.

Among them were cases of violence committed by Phnom Penh authorities and security forces. Some of the victims were chased by perpetrators and beaten repeatedly with hard tools such as stones and iron rods.

Victims often recalled that the perpetrators were not ordinary citizens because they were skillful in launching assaults.

Authorities often claim that they are investigating the cases but have yet to show any results.

Rights groups have urged the authorities to earnestly investigate each case and bring the perpetrators to justice, but police say they have been unable to identify suspects because there is a lack of evidence and the alleged victims often do not cooperate.

Soeung Senkaruna, spokesman for the local rights group ADHOC, told RFA that the government often makes the claim that Cambodia is governed by the rule of law, with a functioning judiciary system and law enforcement, but that this appears to be untrue, as suspects are never found when they attack CNRP personnel.

This failure to bring attackers to justice is embarrassing for the country, which is under the watchful eye of the international community., he said.

“People who have a tendency to be dissatisfied with the government are hurting. I am worried that these people may lose faith in the government, thereby pushing our society into anarchy,” Soeng Senkaruna said.

The perpetrators have never been brought to justice, and  I think this could lead to stronger outrage and protests.”

Am Am Ath, Deputy Director at local NGO LICADHO, said that the international human rights community is united with local rights organizations in their concern over the attacks.

“I think in all these cases, if the authorities want to avoid international criticism, they should take strong legal action to find the perpetrators and have them prosecuted according to the law,” he said.

“This would first ensure the safety and security of the general public. Second it would ensure justice for both society and the victims. Third, this would be important in eliminating the criticism against the government that it discriminates based on political affiliation,” Am Sam Ath said.

So far, there has been only one case—Cambodia’s central Kampong Chhnang province—where authorities have arrested and detained suspects in the assaults.

Chhay Kim Khoeun, the deputy commissioner-general and spokesman for the General Commissariat of the National Police, denied knowledge that the case total was so high.

Alleged victims in some cases had not filed complaints with the authorities, he said, and urged the public not to rush into judgment about the violence being politically motivated prior to authorities releasing their findings.

“In some cases, we received complaints, but in others we have no evidence,” Chhay Kim Khoeun said. “There are neither leads nor eyewitnesses to confirm [accounts] as a basis for our investigation. I cannot accept the allegation that these attacks are politically motivated because we have not yet found the attackers and confirmed their motives,” he said.

He criticized rights leaders for “sitting in offices and unilaterally deciding” without evidence that the attacks were politically motivated.

Tes Saroeun, a CNRP activist who is also an assault victim, told RFA he was not interested in the deputy commissioner-general’s explanation and said that the politically motivated attacks would not be successful in stopping their activism.

“This kind of violence is trying to be like how we discipline children in our families. If we resort to violence, our kids will be afraid for a moment, but they will start to hate us more and more,” Tes Saroeun said. “Only through national reconciliation for people of all walks of life to live together in peace can the country say its leader is wise and the country is based on the rule of law,” he said. 

As Hun Sen’s crackdown on the CNRP enters its fourth year, HRW used its World Report 2021 to catalog abuses in the past year, including repeatedly using violence against peaceful protesters as well as arresting human rights defenders, journalists, opposition party members, and ordinary citizens for peacefully expressing their opinions.

“Amid the pandemic, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) used its 125-to-0 margin in the National Assembly to adopt new laws that further threaten civil and political rights,” the report said. HRW said that more than 60 political prisoners were jailed in Cambodia at the time of writing

The group also called out Hun Sen’s government for imposing “draconian” laws during the pandemic that further curtail the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association; attacking human rights defenders; arresting and harassing members of the opposition party; curtailing the freedom of the media; and failing to provide an adequate standard of living for its citizens in 2020.

The World Justice Project ranked Cambodia 127th of 128 countries listed in its 2020 Rule of Law Index, ahead of only Venezuela.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum and Keo Sovannarith. Written in English by Eugene Whong.