Embattled opposition leader Kem Sokha appealed for a peaceful solution to Cambodia’s political crises as he made his first public appearance since holing up in the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) headquarters for fear of arrest by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
Speaking at party headquarters in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, Kem Sokha urged supporters to adhere to the principles of nonviolence to resolve the political crises that appear to have no end in sight.
“We are resolving these issues through wisdom and nonviolent means,” he said. “As leaders of the CNRP, we must implement this advice.”
Kem Sokha’s appeal came amid continuing reports that the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)-dominated government is still making it difficult for CNRP members to collect thumbprints on a petition asking King Norodom Sihamoni to seek the release of human rights and political activists arrested by the government.
Phnom Penh police detained a CNRP district councilor for three hours on Tuesday after she asked her constituents to place their thumbprints on the petition. Thumbprints take the place of signatures in Cambodia.
CNRP Veal Vong commune councilor Hem Han was detained after police stopped her from collecting thumbprints, she told RFA’s Khmer Service. Her detention sparked a protest.
Treated like a prisoner
“I was forced to sign an agreement to stop collecting thumbprints,” she said, adding that it is her right to collect thumbprints from her supporters as she did this in her own home.
“They treated me just like a prisoner,” she said.
Cambodia's National Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun told RFA that a special committee has been established to examine the thumbprints to verify their authenticity.
While Kem Sokha was appealing for a nonviolent resolution and the authorities were worrying over the validity of the petitions, the National Assembly’s permanent committee refused to protect the legislative immunity of CNRP President Sam Rainsy and other opposition lawmakers. The permanent committee is comprised of CPP members.
In a June 7 statement released to the media, the committee denounced CNRP lawmakers’ attempts to get the government to protect opposition lawmakers’ legislative immunity.
“With regard to any allegations that national institutions abused lawmakers’ and senators’ immunity, the National Assembly permanent committee would like to clarify that those lawmakers and senators committed obvious crimes,” the committee’s statement reads. “Legal measures have been taken against those individuals who commit crimes. Lawmakers who don’t breach any laws shouldn’t be worried.”
‘It doesn’t trouble our heads’
While Kem Sokha was urging peace, Hun Sen appeared content to let his rival stay holed up in CNRP headquarters, at least for a while.
“It doesn’t matter if you want to sleep in a place that’s four meters square, [then] please sleep there,” Hun Sen said, according to the Phnom Penh Post. “It doesn’t trouble our heads.”
According to the article, Hun Sen contends that Kem Sokha is abusing his position, saying the CNRP “has protected the bad man in order to challenge the law.”
The CPP-controlled parliament voted last week to allow police to ignore Sokha’s parliamentary immunity, saying that he committed a flagrant crime and that the court should move ahead with his prosecution.
Critics say the ruling party is manipulating Cambodia’s judiciary to attack opponents ahead of coming elections.
The government has ordered Kem Sokha to appear before the court in connection with at least two complaints that have been filed related to an affair he is alleged to have had with a young hairdresser.
Kem Sokha has refused to appear, and the CNRP and its supporters claim the charges are a trumped-up attempt to damage the party ahead of elections slated for 2017 and 2018.
CNRP President Sam Rainsy has been staying in France or traveling since an arrest warrant was issued for him in November over a 2008 defamation case and he was removed from his office and stripped of his parliamentary immunity. After Sam Rainsy left the country, the CNRP named Kem Sokha its acting president.
The conflict with Kem Sokha is just one of several legal cases the government or the ruling CPP have brought against opposition party members.
A National Election Committee member and four staffers with the rights group ADHOC, along with a United Nations worker, are facing bribery or accessory charges after being accused of attempting to pay the hairdresser to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Kem Sokha.
Human rights workers say the scandal is being used by the ruling party to crack down on its political opponents and silence critics ahead of the elections. Hun Sen has ruled the country for 31 years.
Reported by Morm Moniroth for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.