An outspoken opposition lawmaker from Cambodia has arrived in the U.S. to “attend to personal affairs” amid fears of his arrest, after authorities detained a colleague over the weekend for posting a disputed diplomatic document online relating to the country's border with neighboring Vietnam.
Um Sam An, a member of parliament with the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who holds U.S. citizenship, told RFA’s Khmer Service Tuesday that he had arrived by flight in Atlanta and would soon continue on to Lowell, Massachussetts, where he owns a home.
“My trip to America is not an escape from Cambodia,” he said, adding that he had traveled to the U.S. to meet with his wife and son, and to “attend to personal affairs.”
Um Sam An said he had been invited to the U.S. on the invitation of the Cambodian-American community, and planned to “brief them on Cambodia’s current political situation and deliver an update on the country’s ongoing border dispute with Vietnam.”
The lawmaker said he plans to return to Cambodia within “one and a half months.”
Um Sam An earlier told RFA that he had gone into hiding and fled to Thailand after police arrested Senator Hong Sok Hour of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) on Aug. 15 from the residence of a lawmaker belonging to the CNRP.
Speaking from the border with Thailand on the day Hong Sok Hour was taken into custody, Um Sam An said he had decided to leave Cambodia after learning from local media and a fellow CNRP member that the government planned to arrest him next.
Spokesman for the Council of Ministers Tith Sothea told RFA Tuesday that no criminal proceedings had been initiated against Um Sam An, who has repeatedly accused the government of ceding land to Vietnam, which invaded and occupied Cambodia in 1979, by using incorrect maps to determine border demarcations.
But he didn’t rule out the possibility that the lawmaker might face charges in the future.
“He speaks out like this to serve his political purpose,” Tith Sothea said.
“We can’t guess his destiny—whether he will face the court or not. But no one should be above the law.”
Sam Oeun Sok, chief attorney at the AMRIN Law and Consultants Group, told RFA that simply expressing his opinion about the border dispute with Vietnam was “no reason to arrest Um Sam An,” adding that the lawmaker “didn’t commit any crimes.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Khieu Sopheak told RFA Tuesday that he had not received any information suggesting Um Sam An would be arrested.
Prior to his arrest on Saturday, Hong Sok Hour had posted comments on social media claiming that an article of the 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Treaty was meant to dismantle, rather than simply define, the border between the two countries.
He had also posted online two copies of the 36-year-old border agreement with Vietnam containing the article's disputed wording.
During a graduation speech in the capital Phnom Penh last week, Hun Sen accused Hong Sok Hour of posting a “fake” copy of the treaty that could “endanger national security” and called for his arrest, ordering the city’s international airport to block him from leaving the country.
Hong Sok Hour, who holds citizenship in both Cambodia and France, has claimed he did not fake the disputed article, which he found online several years ago, and said he was willing to correct it if it was proven false.
On Sunday, Hong Sok Hour was sent to Prey Sar prison and charged with forging a public document, using a forged public document, and incitement to cause serious unrest for social security—which could carry a combined maximum prison sentence of 17 years, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
All 47 ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) members of the Senate approved Hong Sok Hour’s arrest a day later, invoking an article in the constitution which calls for the removal of parliamentary immunity for any lawmaker “caught red-handed in a criminal act.” SRP senators had boycotted the hearing.
On July 24, Um Sam An was banned from the National Assembly, or parliament, for 15 sessions and had his salary halved for two months after he was deemed to have “insulted” the legislature’s president Heng Samrin with remarks posted to social media earlier last month.
The remarks accused Heng Samrin of refusing to forward to Hun Sen a July 6 letter demanding that the prime minister cease the demarcation process with Vietnam, which had been signed by several opposition members.
The National Assembly’s legal council found Um Sam An in violation of the constitution, the civil servant status law, and internal rules of the legislature, and also ordered a record of his mistake to be broadcast and posted throughout his constituency in Siem Reap province.
Ruling party lawmaker Chheang Vun had earlier warned that Um Sam An’s parliamentary immunity could be removed for the remarks he posted.
Um Sam An has led activists in inspections of roads and other infrastructure built by Vietnamese villagers in disputed territory, at least one of which led to clashes with Vietnamese near the border of Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province at the end of June.
Reported by Morm Moniroth for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.