Authorities in northwestern Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey province on Tuesday summoned a former local representative of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) after he and others gathered in support of the return of acting party chief Sam Rainsy from self-imposed exile.
Ly Soun, ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) deputy chief of Svay Chek commune, questioned CNRP commune seat representative Minh Hor and two other members of the party—which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017—in a bid to force them to end their support for the return of Sam Rainsy, Minh Hor told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that he will not be intimidated by authorities.
Minh Hor had held the public “unity strengthening gathering,” which was attended by about 30 CNRP supporters, on Feb. 28 to discuss how to welcome Sam Rainsy back to Cambodia, where he has pledged to return from more than three years of exile to in 2019, despite threats by Prime Minister Hun Sen to arrest him for a host of convictions that are widely seen as politically motivated.
According to Minh Hor, Ly Soun asked the three CNRP members on Tuesday why they held an event to show support for Sam Rainsy’s return, and whether the acting CNRP president “joined the meeting” by phone or video conference.
The CNRP representative said that despite the efforts of the local authorities to intimidate him by questioning them, “their tactic didn’t work” because he and other party members had already “sacrificed themselves for the country” and believe that “only Sam Rainsy and [former CNRP president] Kem Sokha can restore Cambodia’s democracy.”
“I am very disappointed by the authorities’ actions, but our spirits are strong and we cannot be intimidated, despite the many threats from Hun Sen that he will ‘destroy’ the opposition party,” he said.
“Our spirits are strong and we are united,” he added.
Hun Sen on Monday said that Kem Sokha will not be released from detention despite hitting the 18-month maximum allowed by law in pre-trial detention, a move denounced by the opposition as a violation of the constitution.
Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 for alleged acts of “treason” and the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of the CNRP two months later, which paved the way for Hun Sen’s CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in a July 2018 general election.
CNRP activist Yat Phyrom, who witnessed Tuesday’s questioning, agreed with Minh Hor’s assessment that the move was part of a bid to intimidate the opposition.
“As I a citizen, I will continue my activities [with the opposition party] to protect the constitution, which states that people have the rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” he said.
Svay Chek commune chief Chrouk Sophal confirmed to RFA on Tuesday that she had summoned and questioned the CNRP activists, but said that it was in connection with a comment Minh Hor had posted on Facebook that defamed local authorities involved in a land dispute, and had nothing to do with politics.
“It was about defamation,” she said, adding that she could not provide any further comment, as she was busy with a meeting.
Sum Chankea, Banteay Meanchey provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA that Cambodia’s constitution protects the right of the people to gather and their freedom of expression, and that the CNRP activists were not in breach of the law by holding the event in support of Sam Rainsy.
Police officers or local authorities who abuse those rights, on the other hand, are violating the law, he added.
“Authorities dare to [question] people because there is no institution that will prosecute them for doing so,” he said.
“In a democracy, those who abuse the freedom of expression are held accountable.”
Call for removal
In an interview with RFA on Monday, Sam Rainsy called on his supporters, as well as the workers and farmers of Cambodia, to “stand up” and “peacefully bring down the Hun Sen regime” if the prime minister fails to reverse course on a crackdown on the political opposition, independent media and NGOs in effect since the lead up to last year’s general election.
The U.S. has since announced visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of measures aimed at pressuring Cambodia to reverse course, and the European Union, which was the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, has said it will drop a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports based on the country’s election environment.
Sam Rainsy again pledged to return home within the year, “as long as global pressure remains at its peak,” saying that Hun Sen is facing “political suicide” if international sanctions are leveled on Cambodia, and that he is willing to consider working with the CPP to resolve the political crisis if the prime minister—who has ruled the country for more than three decades—is first “removed from office.”
“The CNRP does not demand a regime change—we extend an embrace towards the ruling party, as only these two parties can determine the destiny of Cambodia,” he said.
“We are considering working with the CPP, but we request that Hun Sen be removed. Removal of Hun Sen is the first step.”
Speaking to RFA from Finland, political commentator Kim Sok said that the two sides should hold talks to resolve the political crisis with the national interest in mind.
“As for conditions for the talks, I think it should be about promoting democracy—a democracy with fair competition, which is a standard in democracies,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.