An opposition commune chief held in the Cambodian government’s wide-ranging investigation of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha was released early Thursday, raising hopes that more jailed government critics will also go free.
“Discussions are under way to find a solution to release the remaining jailed activists,” CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrith told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Commune Chief Seang Chet’s release on a royal pardon came after a meeting with Kem Sokha and another 15 jailed CNRP’s activists. Kem Sokha also received a pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni that absolved the CNRP’s acting president of failing to appear in one of the cases related to the government’s probe into his alleged affair with a young hair dresser.
Both pardons came at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has run Cambodia’s government for more than three decades and leads the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Ou Chanrith told RFA that talks are also underway to free land-rights advocate Tep Vanny, who was convicted on Sept. 19 of insulting and obstructing public officials and was sentenced to six months in prison in relation to a protest in November 2011 near Hun Sen’s residence.
“A solution to Tep Vanny’s case will be dealt with also,” Ou Chanrith said.
Tep Vanny gained prominence as an activist fighting the Boeung Kak Lake land grab, when some 3,500 families were evicted from the neighborhood surrounding the urban lake in Phnom Penh.
The lake was filled with sand to make way for a development project with close ties to Hun Sen and the CPP.
Seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents— is a major cause of protests in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Laos.
Hun Sen’s warning
It’s unclear exactly what is motivating Hun Sen to seek the pardons, but he denied that the change of heart is coming because of international pressure.
“This sends a message out that Cambodians can solve our problems ourselves,” he said during a ceremony marking the fifth anniversary of Japanese Company Minebea's presence in the country.
“Don’t ever try to put pressure on me. It’s useless to put pressure on me,” he said. “Hun Sen has the most peculiar attitude: The more you pressure me, the more I don’t care.”
Lest anyone think that the new-found cooperation is coming from a kinder and gentler Hun Sen, he underscored the tenuous nature of his tolerance of critics.
“If you take it easy with me and continue to keep calm, there might be more releases,” he said. “That is how peculiar my attitude is.”
“Let’s be unequivocal about that,” he added. “Again, don’t ever think about putting pressure on me. If you want the rest of those jailed people to remain locked up, you may challenge me with that.”
The U.N., the E.U. and some in the U.S. have criticized Hun Sen and Cambodia’s human rights record and a political situation that has seen government critics hauled into court and tossed in jail for what many consider politically-motivated cases.
‘I want nothing but to be able to register to vote’
Seang Chet was sentenced to five years in prison on Dec. 5 for giving $500 to the mother of hairdresser Khom Chandaraty, in what the government said was an attempt to keep the woman quiet about her alleged affair with CNRP leader Kem Sokha.
He said that the money actually was given to Khom Chandaraty’s mother as an act of charity.
While he was adamant about his innocence, Seang Chet said that his biggest disappointment about his time in jail is that he missed voter registration.
“I want nothing but to be able to register to vote,” he said. “That’s the only wish I have. I would like the [National Election Commission] to add me into the voter registration list.”
Despite Hun Sen’s warning, activists found hope in the pardons.
Ou Virak, who heads the think tank Future Forum, said Seang Chet’s release is a positive sign, but he is not very optimistic about the love-hate relationship between the two parties.
“Though I see that there are some positive signs at the national level, I’m afraid that at the grassroots level there are still obstacles in the competition between the two parties,” he said.
While the relations between the CPP and the CNRP may be warming, the government’s relationship with dissent remains frosty. The government prevented demonstrators celebrating the 68th International Human Rights Day from marching in downtown Phnom Penh.
Lonh Sochea, the president of the Independent Monk Network in Battambang, chaffed at the restrictions.
“Our rights to march are restricted. I don’t see why the authorities don’t allow us to express ourselves,” he said. “We are doing this not for us but for everyone in Cambodia and in the world.”
Reported by Moniroth Morm and Sokheng Saut for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.