Opposition lawmakers in Cambodia said Monday they will go ahead with planned mass demonstrations to demand “political normalcy” in defiance of Prime Minister Hun Sen who has vowed to crackdown on protesters “at any cost.”
The final straw for the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) may have been the five-month prison sentence and 800,000-riel (U.S. $194) fine handed down by a Cambodian court on Friday to embattled opposition deputy leader Kem Sokha.
The government revoked the lawmaker’s parliamentary immunity and prosecuted him on charges that he failed to appear as a witness in two cases related to his alleged affair with a young hairdresser. He has been hiding out in CNRP headquarters in the capital Phnom Penh for nearly four months to avoid arrest.
The CNRP and several human rights groups see the trial as part of an attempt by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to use Cambodia’s legal system to sideline the opposition before local elections in 2017 and national elections scheduled for 2018.
Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for more than three decades, responded in strong terms on Monday, saying he will not allow the demonstrations to take place and warning the CNRP it would “face the consequences” if it goes ahead.
He called the demonstrations illegal and vowed to suppress them, asking Minister of the Interior Sar Keng to mobilize forces to crack down on the protests, which he says will threaten the stability and peace of the nation and the people, according to the pro-government online newspaper Fresh News.
Hun Sen issued his warning immediately after the CNRP announced its plan to hold mass demonstrations to demand political normalcy after months of pressure and threats and ensure a safe environment for free and fair elections in 2017 and 2018.
The statement issued by the CNRP said its steering committee believes the party has no option but to go through with the demonstrations.
“A committee to organize the mass demonstrations has been established,” CNRP spokesman Eng Chhay Eang said. “It is tasked with planning how many days will be needed for the demonstrations, along with other logistics.”
The CNRP convened a conference on Sunday at its headquarters in the capital Phnom Penh where Kem Sokha spoke directly to CNRP Youth Leaders, and party president Sam Rainsy joined in via Skype from exile.
During the conference, Kem Sokha told supporters: “Only we ourselves can build democracy. Only we ourselves can protect our rights. I had always believed in a dialogue [with the ruling party]. Unfortunately, the people in power have taken this for granted.”
“I have holed up here for almost four months now expecting a dialogue to find a common solution for our nation, but all to no avail, for the ruling party has turned turn a blind eye to it,” he said.
Rainsy, who is in self-imposed exile after leaving the country following his removal from parliament by the CPP in November over a warrant issued for his arrest in an old defamation case, told supporters that “all Cambodians should express ourselves.”
“We should do so in the form of a mass demonstration like the ones in 2013 and early 2014,” he said. “It’s not about just Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha, or the jailed activists. It’s about all of us.”
The CNRP participated in demonstrations between July 2013 and July 2014 against Hun Sen’s government following widespread allegations of electoral fraud during general elections in 2013. The CNRP boycotted parliament, and a government crackdown on striking garment workers who were allied with the protesters in January 2014 led to the deaths of four people and the injuring of dozens of others.
The two political parties reached a deal on electoral reform later that year that ended the nearly yearlong deadlock.
Sam Rainsy's conviction
In July, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Sam Rainsy of defaming National Assembly president Heng Samrin, who is also a senior CPP leader, fining him 10 million riels (U.S. $2,440) and ordering him to pay Heng Samrin 150 million riels (U.S. $36,590) in compensation.
At the time, Sam Rainsy told RFA the conviction was based more on “politics and corruption” than on an impartial judicial review.
Sam Rainsy faces arrest upon returning to Cambodia. Kem Sokha has assumed his responsibilities as party leader while he is in exile.
Other CNRP members are also serving jail time on what they say are charges trumped up by the CPP.
CNRP media director Meach Sovannara is serving a 20-year prison term for allegedly fomenting insurrection against Hun Sen’s government during a 2014 protest in Phnom Penh. He and 10 other activists were jailed on insurrection charges for clashing with police over the closure of a protest site.
Sovannara is suing Hun Manet, the son of Hun Sen who is widely viewed at the prime minister’s successor, and the country of Cambodia for the emotional and financial damage borne by his family for his wrongful imprisonment and torture.
Reported by Sereyvuth Oung, Sokunthea Hong and Maly Leng for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.