The political standoff in Cambodia intensified this week with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) taking steps to jail opposition party leader Kem Sokha and supporters of the embattled leader attempting to prevent his arrest.
On Tuesday Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) members and supporters rallied in front of the party headquarters in an effort to protect CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha, who has been staying at CNRP’s headquarters for six days after heavily armed police attempted to arrest the lawmaker.
The CNRP supporters looked prepared for a long vigil as some of them brought money, fresh drinking water, noodles, rice, bread, folding beds, and hammocks to the party headquarters in Phnom Penh. About a hundred people gathered there during the night and around 200 others during the day.
There were no outward signs of a police presence on Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean the undercover agents for the government weren’t in attendance.
Monday was a different story as hundreds of police armed with electric batons and tear-gas guns temporarily blocked the road near the CNRP headquarters as some of the party’s lawmakers attempted to deliver a petition to King Norodom Sihamoni seeking his intervention in the tense political drama.
CNRP lawmakers have been collecting petitions signed with Cambodians' thumbprints urging the king to press the Hun Sen government to release human rights activists, respect parliamentary immunity, and stop harassing Kem Sokha and the CNRP.
Authorities eventually decided to open the barbed-wire barricade on Monday and allow the CRNP motorcade to pass.
Kem Sokha has been staying in the CNRP’s headquarters with his subordinates and his family. In the room he uses, he sometimes sleeps on a sofa and sometimes on a folding bed, as do his supporters. While his speech is normal, and he does not express any fear when he talks, he seems worried about his impending arrest, sources said.
He still remains incommunicado, however.
CNRP Parliamentarian Yem Ponhearith, told RFA that Kem Sokha doesn’t need to come out to meet with the public, saying the party’s lawmakers can deal with the public.
Hun Sen’s government has repeatedly attempted to get Kem Sokha to testify in court as prosecutors pursue cases related to allegations that the lawmaker had an affair with a young hairdresser. The allegations emerged in March when recordings of telephone conversations between the two were leaked online.
Hun Sen raises his hand
After a three-minute long meeting of the National Assembly on Monday, 68 CPP lawmakers unanimously voted to allow the court to continue to prosecute the Kem Sokha case. The CNRP boycotted the meeting.
The vote allows the government to pursue Kem Sokha without lifting his legislative immunity as the legislature has done in the past when the CPP controlled more than two-thirds of the legislature.
With the vote, the National Assembly uses an exception written into the Cambodian constitution that allows a lawmaker's arrest for flagrant offenses. By refusing to answer a court summons in a case related to the affair, the vote means the legislature deemed the offense a flagrant one.
During the session National Assembly President Heng Samrin read a statement asking lawmakers to allow the court to prosecute Kem Sokha.
“I would like the assembly to examine and adopt [a request] allowing the court to continue its procedures over Kem Sokha's case, please raise your hands," he said. Hun Sen was among those who raised his hand.
Also on Monday, the European Union condemned the “dangerous political escalation” that is gripping the country as the Hun Sen government pursues members of the opposition party on various cases in the run-up to elections in 2017 and 2018.
Phnom Penh has also arrested four members of the human rights group ADHOC and an election official on charges related to the Kem Sokha affair.
A warrant for the arrest of a United Nations worker has also been issued on a charge related to the Kem Sokha case. So far, two complaints have been filed related to Kem Sokha’s alleged affair with Khom Chandaraty. Kem Sokha has refused to appear in court in a defamation lawsuit related to the scandal.
“EU Heads of Mission in Phnom Penh deeply regret the dangerous political escalation of recent days and call for a halt to the judicial harassment of the acting leader of the opposition and representatives of civil society organizations,” the local EU’s Cambodia delegation wrote in a statement.
“We urge the Cambodian authorities to resume as soon as possible a peaceful and constructive dialogue with the opposition, which we see as a prerequisite for the legitimacy of the forthcoming elections.”
Am Sam Ath, an investigator with the human rights group Licadho, told RFA that the EU believes that Cambodia is going backwards politically.
“I think the EU has an important role to play in order to bring the political and human rights situation in Cambodia back to normal,” he said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA that the EU’s sentiments are misplaced.
“The statement pertains to a political situation, and it seeks to protect a person who violated the law and human rights and showed a lack of morality,” he said. “The statement doesn’t reflect what the government has done so far to improve the rule of law.”
CNRP President Sam Rainsy has been staying in France or traveling since an arrest warrant was issued for him in November over a 2008 defamation case, and he was removed from his office and stripped of his parliamentary immunity. After Sam Rainsy left the country, the CNRP named Kem Sokha its acting president.
The conflict with Kem Sokha is just one of the legal cases the government or the ruling CPP has brought against opposition party members.
Human rights workers say the entire scandal is a bald attempt by the ruling party to crack down on its political opponents and silence its critics ahead of the elections. Hun Sen has ruled the country for 31 years.
Reported by Leng Maly and San Sel for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.