Cambodia’s former opposition chief Sam Rainsy on Tuesday dismissed recent comments by Minister of Interior Sar Kheng who said the release of current opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president Kem Sokha from pre-trial detention last week would create a power struggle between the two men.
Over the weekend, Sar Kheng told ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) supporters in Prey Veng province that the government “has no reason to harm or kill Kem Sokha,” who was freed on bail on Sept. 10 and placed under virtual house arrest, a year after he was arrested on treason charges widely seen as politically motivated.
“However, we are very concerned that he might be harmed now that he is released,” the minister said in a video of the speech posted to his Facebook account.
“His release poses some risk in creating a power struggle between him and Sam Rainsy, who wants to become the president of the party again.”
Sam Rainsy, who has been living in self-imposed exile for nearly three years to avoid a string of convictions by courts seen as beholden to Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, stepped down as head of the CNRP in February last year to prevent the dissolution of the party.
But the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP anyway in November, saying the party had played a role in Kem Sokha’s alleged plot to overthrow the government, and opposition candidates were banned from taking part in the country’s July 29 general election, which the CPP won handily.
On Tuesday, Sam Rainsy told RFA’s Khmer Service that he and Kem Sokha remain committed to the goals of the CNRP, and dismissed Sar Kheng’s comments as “nothing short of an attempt to break up the CNRP leadership.”
“They want Sam Rainsy to break with Kem Sokha,” he said of the minister and other members of Hun Sen’s government.
Last week, Sam Rainsy welcomed Kem Sokha’s release—which carried the conditions that he must stay within a block radius of his home, cannot meet with CNRP officials or foreigners, and cannot or host any rallies or political activities—but wrote on his Facebook page that it was “not enough.”
“The groundless and ludicrous charges against him must be dropped. Once those charges are dropped, there will no longer be any grounds for maintaining the dissolution of the CNRP, which then will have to be reinstated,” he wrote.
Kem Sokha still faces up to 30 years if convicted of treason.
Sar Kheng’s comments over the weekend also referred to the government’s plan to keep Kem Sokha under house arrest after his release, and alluded to his frustration over the difficulty in justifying it through a legal system that does not allow for such a condition of release.
“There is no provision in our Criminal Code that relates to house arrest,” he said.
“How were we supposed to deal with that? We had to find another way out.”
According to Sar Kheng, he ordered a letter be prepared for Kem Sokha to sign which said that the opposition chief was “worried about his personal safety and security” and requested the national police to provide him with protection.
“We asked him to write the letter by himself based on our idea,” he said.
“First we asked him to write that he needed security protection at his house. But he asked that the term ‘house’ be removed. We agreed. By means of that letter, we could not be accused of placing him under house arrest.”
Sar Kheng also suggested that the government had to “let [Kem Sokha’s case] flow according to the required court procedures” so that it could avoid being “accused of making a mistake” in charging him with treason.
The minister’s remarks stood in stark contradiction to what Hun Sen has said about Kem Sokha’s case, which is that his bail was granted “at the discretion of the courts,” and that his government “had no say in it.”
The video of Sar Kheng’s comments was removed from his Facebook page a few hours after it was posted, with no explanation given for its retraction.
Political analyst Bong Deth told RFA that Sar Kheng’s comments only confirmed what many believe to be true—Hun Sen’s government enjoys near total influence over the country’s courts.
“The people know very well that Cambodian courts are under the control of the ruling party and the government,” he said.
Guarantee of protection
The Phnom Penh Post on Tuesday reported that the minister had vowed to keep Kem Sokha safe, and said “he cannot accuse us [if there is any incident] because he himself was the one who requested protection.”
Addressing Sar Kheng’s guarantee to provide protection for the opposition chief, Sam Rainsy told RFA that he was reminded of “a similar assurance he gave me on March 29, 1997, on the eve of a deadly grenade attack on a peaceful demonstration I was going to lead in Phnom Penh.”
“Like Kem Sokha now, I also asked for protection from Sar Kheng. In his same capacity as Interior Minister, Sar Kheng sent me a letter to give me the same assurance that he would provide protection to my group of peaceful demonstrators, but this did not prevent the grenade attack from happening.”
The attack on the rally left 16 people dead and more than 150 injured, and nearly killed Sam Rainsy.
“Therefore, we must be careful about the ruling CPP giving us an ‘assurance of security’ while organizing state-sponsored acts of terrorism behind our backs,” the former opposition chief said.
Hun Sen, who secured another five-year term to add to his 33 years in office after official election results were announced on Aug. 15, has made a practice of heavy-handed crackdowns on his critics, followed by a relaxation of restrictions after facing international condemnation.
The U.S. recently announced an expansion of visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of “concrete steps” aimed at pressuring Cambodia to “reverse course” that included a decision to withdraw funding for last month’s elections.
The European Union, which was the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, also withdrew support ahead of the ballot and is currently reviewing a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports based on the country’s election environment.
Last month, King Norodom Sihamoni granted a royal pardon at Hun Sen’s behest to 14 jailed CNRP activists who were serving long sentences for “insurrection” in connection with anti-government street protests in 2014 that turned into violent clashes with police and security forces.
Their release followed the freeing by royal decree of Tep Vanny—a prominent land activist—and three other campaigners convicted for their roles in a protest over a land grab, as well as the granting of bail to two former RFA reporters who are facing charges of “espionage.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.