Cambodia National Rescue Party Leader Kem Sokha Briefly Leaves Party Headquarters

The CNRP acting president registers to vote amid signs that the political tension is easing.

Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha registers to vote in Phnom Penh, Oct. 5, 2016.

Embattled Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha emerged today from the party’s headquarters for the first time since government forces tried to arrest him in May as he registered to vote in 2017 local elections.

“As a leader, I must participate in this election process, and I will participate in the upcoming election,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “CNRP principles remain the same, no change, and that is to proceed to the election so we can make positive changes.”

Local commune elections are set for 2017 and the national parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2018.

In May, heavily-armed police attempted to arrest the acting CNRP president for failing to appear in court for government-backed cases related to his alleged affair with a young hairdresser.

On Wednesday armed police on motorbikes followed Kem Sokha to his registration station and then followed him back to CNRP headquarters.

On Sept. 9 the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ruled that Kem Sokha was guilty of refusing to appear for questioning in a prostitution case against him, and he was sentenced to five months in prison and given a fine of 800,000 riel ($200).

Kem Sokha is accused of procuring a prostitute in relation to his alleged affair with hairdresser Khom Chandaraty. Despite being summoned twice in May, he refused to appear in court to answer questions about the prostitution allegations.

A political battle

The CNRP and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have been engaged in a brutal political battle for months as the government has arrested opposition politicians, kept Kem Sokha under virtual house arrest and forced CNRP president Sam Rainsy to flee the country. Kem Sokha was named acting president after Sam Rainsy left the country.

At the same time the CNRP has boycotted the National Assembly, while appealing for support from foreign governments that provide aid to Cambodia and from media outlets that are not controlled by Hun Sen’s government.

Add in the mysterious death of government critic Kem Ley, who was gunned down in broad daylight on July 10 by a former soldier in what many believe was a political assassination. Kem Ley’s family fled Cambodia in fear.

While the political battle seems intractable, Hun Sen and senior CNRP members have recently hinted that an armistice is in reach.

Hun Sen declared a truce for the Pchum Ben holiday that ended Oct. 1 and Sam Rainsy said he was considering going back to Cambodia.

While CNRP officials have joined in preliminary committee meetings, the National Assembly convenes its plenary session on Friday.

‘A sign that the situation is returning to a political dialogue’

Kem Sokha’s registration is another sign that Cambodia’s political situation may be returning to normal, said Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections (NICFE).

“This is a sign that the situation is returning to a political dialogue,” he said.

The political situation has played out as Cambodia has begun to register voters under a new system that is designed to reduce fraud.

National Election Commission (NEC) spokesperson Hang Puthea told RFA that the number of people registering locally is exceeding previous expectations, but that the NEC is concerned that too few Cambodians working abroad are registering.

“We have some concern for those who are working abroad because we see their registration is low,” he said.

Reported by Moniroth Morm for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.