In the face of beatings, arrests, political payback, and possibly assassination, leaders of the embattled opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party on Monday vowed to continue pressing for change in Phnom Penh.
“Over the past year we have experienced the greatest tragic episodes of beatings and constant persecution inflicted upon the CNRP,” acting party leader Kem Sokha said as the CNRP marked its four-year anniversary at CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh.
“However, we believe we have been walking down the right path thanks to our strong and unbreakable unity,” he added.
Kem Sokha should well know the feeling of persecution as he has been holed up in the CNRP headquarters since heavily-armed police attempted to arrest him in May for ignoring court orders to appear as a witness in a pair of defamation cases related to his alleged affair with a hairdresser.
He has also seen his parliamentary immunity lifted in response to refusing to heed the court summonses and has been barred from leaving Cambodia.
These actions are seen by many civil society groups and outside observers as an effort by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to discredit the CNRP and maintain their three-decade-long grip on power in Cambodia.
Kem Sokha’s words were echoed by CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who accused the government of sanctioning violence in its efforts to silence government critics like Kem Ley, who was gunned down at a Phnom Penh gas station on July 10.
‘They used violence to gun down Dr. Kem Ley’
“They have used violence. They have used their court to pressure, threaten, and intimidate the CNRP and its supporters,” Sam Rainsy said via Skype. “Recently, without hesitation, they used violence to gun down Dr. Kem Ley, who was a patriot and who was not even a member of the CNRP, because he dared to call a spade a spade and gave truthful criticism against the government.”
Kem Ley, 46, was shot twice at point-blank range at a gas station convenience store that he often stopped at to talk with friends. Just days before, he’d discussed a report by the British NGO Global Witness detailing the extent of the Hun Sen family’s wealth.
A Cambodian court charged a former soldier named Oueth Ang with premeditated murder on Wednesday for the execution-style killing of Kem Ley. Authorities have said that Kem Ley was killed over an outstanding $3,000 debt to Oueth Ang, but many in Cambodia question that explanation.
Thousands have turned out to mourn Kem Ley at Watt Bodhiyaram in Phnom Penh, where his flower-covered glass coffin has been displayed.
His body will be taken to his home village of Takeo on July 24, said But Buntenh, president of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice and a member of Kem Ley Funeral Committee.
“There has been some external pressure to take the body out of Phnom Penh at the earliest convenience,” he said during and RFA Live TV interview. “The authorities appear to be paranoid about the body being kept in Phnom Penh.”
Not just the CNRP
Sam Rainsy also knows firsthand the feeling of persecution, as he has been living abroad since he was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in 2015 because of a warrant issued for his arrest in an old defamation case.
He has also been the victim of violence, as an apparent attempt to assassinate him in a 1997 grenade attack failed. While he escaped, the attack killed his bodyguard and at least 15 other people and injured more than 150. No one has been brought to justice for the attack.
Since Sam Rainsy left the country, Kem Sokha has been acting president of the CNRP.
While CNRP leaders say they have been targeted, Kem Sokha said the current political turmoil effects more than just the CNRP.
“Not only has the current political crisis affected the CNRP and its leadership, but it also affects civil society organizations, the National Election Committee, independent political commentators and analysts, investors, and people who want peace and social justice,” he said.
Kem Sokha may have been able to avoid arrest, but four employees of the human rights group ADHOC and a member of the National Election Commission (NEC) weren’t so lucky. An arrest warrant has also been issued for a U.N. worker.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told RFA’s Khmer Service the CNRP is playing politics.
“They have failed to acknowledge the truth about their illegal acts,” he said. “Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha themselves, and Hong Sok Hour, Um Sam An, and the like have broken the laws. Yet they are politicizing the current situation to cover up their mess.”
About a dozen opposition party members, including Hong Sok Hour and Um Sam An, are jailed in the country’s Prey Sar prison on various charges.
The government may be preparing to toss other opposition lawmakers in jail as the National Assembly convened a session on Monday to strip two more CNRP lawmakers of their immunity.
On June 30, the Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana submitted a request to National Assembly President Heng Samrin seeking to lift the immunity of CNRP lawmakers Tok Vanchan and Pin Ratana for violating Cambodia’s anti-prostitution ordinance.
Senior CNRP lawmakers Eng Chhai Eang and Son Chhay called the move unconstitutional.
Reported for RFA's Khmer Service by Maly Leng. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.