Kem Sokha’s Daughters Say His Arrest Shows Cambodia Rulers' Fear of Grassroots

As foreign criticism mounts, ruling party calls Kem Sokha a Western puppet.

Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha (L) is escorted by police at his home in Phnom Penh, Sept. 3, 2017.

Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president Kem Sokha arrest without warrant on treason charges brought his wife to tears, but is a sign long-ruling Hun Sen and his party fear grassroots democracy, his daughters wrote.

“Kem Sokha is now moved to an actual prison cell where inmates are kept, our mom broke into tears seeing him in prison uniform today,” Kem Sokha’s daughter Kem Monovithya wrote in twitter post on Thursday.

Writing in the Washington Post, also on Thursday, Kem Monovithya, deputy director-general of public affairs at the CNRP, joined her younger sister Kem Samathida in sharing the account of their father’s arrest by dozens of heavily armed policemen shortly after midnight on Sept. 2.

“They had no warrant, but they told his guards that they would be ‘destroyed’ if they didn’t open the door. Then the police charged in. They pushed two female housekeepers to the floor, putting guns to their heads and robbing them of their phones and money,” the sisters wrote.

“Our father’s last words to us over the phone were, ‘they’re handcuffing me.’ Then they dragged him away as our mother cried for help,” they said.

Kem Sokha was arrested after government-aligned media outlet Fresh News released a heavily edited video from Australia-based Cambodian Broadcasting Network (CBN) it said showed the opposition leader was working with the United States to unseat strongman Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 32 years.

On Tuesday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy prosecutor Sieng Sok concluded his investigation into Kem Sokha’s case and formally charged him with conspiring with a foreign power to “foment hostilities or acts of aggression against Cambodia,” in accordance with Article 443 of the country’s Criminal Code.

According to the court’s prosecution office, Kem Sokha’s statement in the video, as well as “evidence collected by competent authorities,” proved the opposition leader had been conspiring to topple Hun Sen’s government since 1993.

'He has to be locked up'

Kem Sokha’s daughters said the full-length video demonstrates only his interest in learning about applying grass-roots democracy and non-violent methods in Cambodia, which holds a general election in mid-2008.

“The brutality of his arrest is revealing: His work has become a threat to the ruling party. The government is accusing him of treason based on a video publicly broadcast — with his knowledge — in 2013,” they wrote.

“The government has produced and distributed a selectively edited version of the video to buttress its claims. Yet what it calls ‘treason’ is nothing more than an expression of support for grass-roots empowerment and effective opposition in democracy,” wrote the daughters.

The arrest has drawn a steady stream of criticism and concern from Western governments, many of which are aid donors to Cambodia and are worried about the viability of elections next year.

“With national elections approaching, Canada is seriously concerned by the recent arrest of Cambodia National Rescue Party's leader Kem Sokha. This latest attempt to compromise the democratic process follows the imposition of startling restrictions on independent news outlets,” the country said in a statement issued in Phnom Penh.

Germany called for Kem Sokha’s immediate release.

“The recent events in Cambodia, constraints on civil society organizations, steps taken against the media as well as this arrest signify a massive restriction of freedom of speech and thus the democratic process in the country,” the government said in a statement

“Without a credible opposition, democratic control, free media and an active civil society, the upcoming election to the National Assembly in July 2018 loses credence,” said Germany.

The ruling Cambodia People’s Party pushed back, with spokesperson Sok Eysan saying foreign statements of support “are nothing but encouragement for the leader of the opposition to be more insolent.”

“Because of the cold war political tendency and ideology some foreign governments are not hesitant to support the new and former leaders of the opposition party who are their puppets,” he wrote on Telegram.

“Their support makes them become even less afraid to break the laws including in particular the crimes of conspiring with foreign powers to topple the legitimate government of Cambodia,” said Sok Eysan.

The CPP spokesman appeared to say that Kem Sokha will not receive due process.

“Like in Kem Sokha’s case, he has committed serious crime of treason. None of his bosses could help him. He has to be locked up,” wrote Sok Eysan.

Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong and Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Paul Eckert.