US Ambassador Wants Cambodian Opposition Leader Kem Sokha Freed, Despite Easing of Restrictions

cambodia-kem-sokha-and-us-ambassador-patrick-murphy-nov-2019.jpg Cambodia National Rescue Party former president Kem Sokha, front right, shakes hands with US Ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy, center, before a welcome meeting at his house in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Nov. 11, 2019.
AP Photo

The U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy on Monday called for the full restoration of former opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president Kem Sokha’s freedom, saying that the easing of restrictions as part of his de facto house arrest over the weekend does not go far enough.

Kem Sokha, who was arrested in September 2017 on charges of “treason” amid a crackdown on the opposition by Prime Minister Hun Sen, met with Murphy at his home on Monday, a day after the Phnom Penh Municipal Court announced that he is now free to leave his house, but can’t travel outside Cambodia or take part in political activities.

Following the meetings, Kem Sokha apologized to reporters, saying he was unable to respond to questions that are political in nature.

“It is unfortunate and I’m sorry because I am prohibited from taking part in or speaking about politics,” he said.

“I’m not sure what political language is defined as, so I’m not sure what I can say and what I cannot. Therefore, I must apologize to all of you journalists.”

Speaking to the media following their meeting, Murphy welcomed the move to ease restrictions on Kem Sokha, but said authorities should drop all charges against him.

“Our advice, as a friend of the Kingdom of Cambodia, is that the authorities find a way to restore Mr. Kem Sokha’s entire freedoms and liberties, to drop the charges against him, but also to use this important time and place to do the same for many other people who have had their freedoms and liberties denied,” he said, referring to an ongoing clampdown on the opposition, NGOs and the media.

“We urge that they be freed, that they be allowed—whether they are inside the country or outside the country—to participate, so that their voices can be heard … We’d like to see them all freed, have charges dropped so they can participate.”

Murphy also called for “an inclusive, complete dialogue aimed at broad reconciliation so that, once again, Cambodia can be on a path to full, multiparty democracy,” which he said would improve the country’s ties with the U.S. and its neighbors.

Kem Sokha was released from custody on strictly supervised bail a year after his arrest and is awaiting a trial that could see him sentenced to up to 30 years in prison if convicted. Rights groups have denounced the easing of his restrictions as a ploy by Hun Sen to evade international censure.

EU response

On Monday, the European Union, which is investigating whether to withdraw preferential trade status for Cambodia because of democratic rollbacks in the country, issued a statement calling the move “a first step in the right direction,” but noted that Kem Sokha remains under court supervision, his case is not closed, and he is banned from engaging in politics.

“The European Union reiterates the importance of the Cambodian authorities taking immediate action to open the political space in the country, to establish the necessary conditions for a credible, democratic opposition and initiate a process of national reconciliation through genuine and inclusive dialogue,” the bloc’s foreign affairs and security policy spokesperson Maja Kocijancic said.

“In particular, we expect Kem Sokha to be fully released and his political rights reinstated so that he can play a full part in political life. We also expect the Cambodia authorities to reinstate the political rights of all opposition members banned from political like and to fully release all opposition members, supporters and activists recently put under detention.”

Two months after Kem Sokha’s arrest, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP, citing a plot to overthrow the government, paving the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 parliamentary seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.

In August, acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy announced that he would return to Cambodia to lead a restoration of democracy through nonviolent protests and free Kem Sokha, and since then, authorities have arrested and jailed many of those who have voiced support for the plan, which the government calls part of a “coup” attempt.

Sam Rainsy was unable to follow through on his original plan to enter Cambodia through neighboring Thailand on Nov. 9 because the Thai government would not allow him into the country, citing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) principle of non-interference in the affairs of other member countries. Instead, the CNRP chief traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Sunday, where he is planning his next steps.

Malaysia meeting

On Monday, Sam Rainsy met with Malaysia’s top diplomat, Saifuddin Abdullah, and told RFA’s Khmer Service that their discussion was “friendly and fruitful,” adding that the minister of foreign affairs and member of parliament for Malaysia’s Indera Mahkota township expressed “respect and support” for his efforts to restore democracy to Cambodia.

“[Malaysia] allowed us leaders of the CNRP to enter their country by guaranteeing our safety and freedom—this is a great victory for the CNRP and for Cambodians as a whole, who are yearning for democracy,” he said, adding that the move “means Malaysia recognizes that the CNRP will bring about democracy in Cambodia.”

“[Saifuddin] spoke with me as an MP, in the name of Malaysians … Whoever struggles in the defense of human rights and democracy, he said, will be provided with moral support and solidarity in the name of democracy.”

Sam Rainsy said that his travel to Malaysia represents “only the beginning of my return,” and said he hopes to make further progress in his plan “by the end of the year.”

The meeting between Sam Rainsy and Saifuddin came as Malaysian lawmaker Nurul Izzah Anwar, who is the daughter of Malaysian opposition People’s Justice Party (PKR) leader Anwar bin Ibrahim, confirmed that she had invited the CNRP chief to Malaysia’s parliament on Tuesday.

The PKR had yet to comment on the authenticity of a letter dated Nov. 9 and posted to Twitter by a CNRP activist, in which Nurul Izzah purportedly asked Sam Rainsy and other senior CNRP leaders to the legislature to discuss “the way forward in pursuing the best socio-developmental pathways for both Malaysia and Cambodia.”

Sam Rainsy declined to discuss the agenda of Tuesday’s meeting, but called the invitation “crucial” and “a demonstration that representatives of the Malaysian people value the leaders of the CNRP.”

Sam Rainsy also called the easing of restrictions on Kem Sokha “a trick” by Hun Sen to “cheat the European Union into believing that [he] is released.”

“What can he do without being involved in politics,” he asked. “It is not sufficient.”

But Sam Rainsy said that even if Kem Sokha was freed, Cambodia’s problems cannot be solved by addressing individual cases.

“We are talking about Cambodia’s political crisis that must be resolved for all Cambodians, by restoring their rights and freedoms, not just Kem Sokha or Sam Rainsy, individually,” he said.

“Unless principle solutions for freedoms and rights are provided to the Cambodian people as a whole—meaning that there should be genuine democracy, a guarantee of freedom of expression, assembly, freedom of the press and freedom for unionists—the political crisis remains.”

Earlier obstacles

Monday’s exchange between Saifuddin and Sam Rainsy, and the invitation from Nurul Izzah, represents a departure for Malaysia, which only last week detained CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua for around 19 hours on arrival, but eventually allowed her to enter the country after questioning her about her intentions.

On Sunday, Saifuddin had said that Mu Sochua was not detained, but had undergone standard checks following Cambodia’s request for a list of opposition leaders to be deported there, adding that Malaysia had acted “without pressure.”

According to a report by the New Straits Times, Saifuddin had expressed hope that Mu Sochua and other Cambodian members of the opposition would not use Malaysia as a base from which to mobilize their political movement.

Saifuddin’s comments came after Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Nov. 7 cited the ASEAN principle of non-interference and said authorities do not want Malaysia to be used as a platform for a political struggle in other nations.

In addition to a crackdown on CNRP supporters inside the country, Hun Sen’s government has also militarized Cambodia’s border provinces and ordered the armed forces to attack any opposition gatherings in connection with Sam Rainsy’s planned return, banned commercial airlines that serve the country from boarding the CNRP chief, and sought the cooperation of neighboring countries by issuing arrest warrants to ensure that the return is prevented.

Last week, Cambodia’s ambassador to Indonesia, Hor Nambora, confronted CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua as she held a press conference at a hotel in Jakarta to explain the CNRP’s plans, calling the opposition’s leaders “fugitives and criminals” because they had been convicted of plotting a coup.

Following the press conference, Cambodia’s embassy issued a statement expressing concern that Indonesia had allowed Mu Sochua to enter the country to “conduct anti-Cambodian activities in Jakarta,” and calling on authorities to arrest her and “deport her to Cambodia immediately in the true spirit of ASEAN.”

Responding to the embassy on Monday, Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that “the Indonesian government respects the freedom of expression and democratic principles in the country” but added that it is “committed to adhere to the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of neighboring ASEAN countries.”

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


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