In a rare public message while under house arrest, opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president Kem Sokha on Thursday thanked supporters for wishing him well on his 67th birthday and vowed to continue working to serve their interests, despite facing charges widely seen as politically motivated.
Authorities arrested Kem Sokha in September 2017 on charges of “treason” and Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 of its elected officials from politics two months later for its alleged role in a plot to overthrow the government.
The moves were part of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
After CNRP activists in several provinces celebrated Kem Sokha’s 67th birthday on Thursday with cakes and song, the opposition leader defied the conditions of his house arrest and issued a rare statement in a post to his Facebook account, telling supporters that they had reinvigorated his sense of patriotism.
“Even though I have been detained for almost two years, even though I cannot meet people in person and listen to their grievances like in the past, as long as the sun continues to rise, Kem Sokha will get up each day in anticipation of when he will be able to serve his Khmer compatriots,” he wrote.
Kem Sokha said that he has no regrets and is willing to face the courts “for the sake of democracy, human rights and national reconciliation.”
The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts—though the U.S. Embassy had rejected any suggestion that Washington was interfering in Cambodian politics at the time of his arrest.
Kem Sokha has said that his statement in the video “was merely an educational speech on the appreciation of human rights and democracy,” and believes that his arrest and the dissolution of the CNRP were politically motivated.
A CNRP activist named Meas Chheang who joined a celebration held by around 100 supporters for the opposition leader in Svay Rieng province told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday that the people love Kem Sokha because of his “sense of nationalism and sacrifice.”
“People know that he is innocent—it’s a political case,” he said.
“The authorities arrested him even though he is innocent, but the hearts of the activists [who support him] remain in the same place.”
Another activist named Phan Sorith told RFA that around 50 villagers gathered in Kampong Cham province on Thursday to celebrate Kem Sokha’s birthday.
“The people still pay gratitude and thank Kem Sokha in our hearts,” he said.
CPP spokesman Sok Ey San dismissed claims that Kem Sokha continues to enjoy wide support from the public.
“We won’t know until we count the ballots,” he said, seeming to suggest that Kem Sokha could attempt to run for office again, as long as he avoids a conviction and joins a legally sanctioned party ahead of the country’s next general election in 2023.
The CPP’s victory at last year’s ballot means the CPP “has more supporters,” he added.
Last month, at the conclusion of her seventh visit to the country, Rhona Smith, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia called for the release of Kem Sokha from house arrest, though government spokesman Phay Siphan said his fate is a “matter for the courts.”
Avoiding EU sanctions
Meanwhile, acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy said Thursday that officials from the European Union told him during a series of meetings in Brussels this week that Cambodia will only avoid losing preferential trade status with the bloc is if Hun Sen’s government restores democracy by reinstating the opposition.
In February, the EU launched a six-month monitoring period ending in mid-August to determine whether Cambodia’s exports should continue to enjoy tax-free entry into the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme. The decision was prompted by the Supreme Court ban on the CNRP.
In a Facebook post on Thursday, Sam Rainsy advised Hun Sen on what he said is an “easy” way to salvage Cambodia’s EBA status.
“To avoid European Commission sanctions, Hun Sen must release Kem Sokha and restore the opposition party,” he said.
“The key to resolution is easy, as long as Hun Sen honors the EU’s requests.”
Sam Rainsy noted that Hun Sen had “failed three times” to destroy the CNRP and establish “fake opposition parties” in a bid to legitimize Cambodia as a multiparty democracy, despite directing a ban of the CNRP—the CPP’s only real challenger.
He also taunted the Cambodian strongman for failing to convince the vast majority of the 118 CNRP officials who were banned from politics to have their political rights reinstated by seeking pardons and defecting to the CPP.
Responding to Sam Rainsy’s post, Phay Siphan told RFA that he doesn’t believe the acting CNRP chief can convince the EU to impose sanctions on Cambodia.
“I am not interested in Sam Rainsy, because he is a convict,” he said.
While Sam Rainsy left Cambodia in late 2015 to avoid what are seen as politically motivated convictions on defamation and other charges, he has continued to actively shepherd the CNRP in exile.
Earlier this month, he announced that he had agreed to return to the country in September, following a decision by fellow party executives to go home to restore democracy in the authoritarian Southeast Asian country.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.