Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen met with opposition leader Kem Sokha on Tuesday after the former head of the banned party, now on trial for treason, sent condolences over the death of Hun Sen’s mother-in-law and attended her funeral, media sources said.
Reports in the government-aligned online Fresh News service did not say whether political issues were raised during the 50-minute meeting, however, and RFA attempts to reach Kem Sokha for comment were unsuccessful Tuesday.
“My wife and I are saddened by the death on May 4 of Samdech’s mother-in-law Bun Seangly, and we would like to offer our condolences,” Kem Sokha, the former head of the outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party, wrote on his Facebook page on Monday, using an honorific form of address for the long-ruling Cambodian prime minister.
Acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy, now living in exile in Paris following a string of convictions widely believed to be politically motivated, also sent condolences in a Facebook posting, saying “Even though we have different political views, sadness over the death of loved ones happens to everyone.”
When Sam Rainsy’s own mother-in-law died in 2016, Hun Sen sent his son to attend the funeral, the exiled opposition chief noted, adding, “Even though I could not attend the funeral myself, I can never forget the actions of Samdech and his family toward my family and me.”
“This is not about politics. We simply expressed our condolences,” Sam Rainsy said, reached by RFA for comment. Political changes, including the reinstatement of the now-banned CNRP and dismissal of the charges against Kem Sokha, may follow from the meeting, though, he said.
Crackdown on political opposition
Kem Sokha, 66, was arrested in September 2017 and charged with treason over what prosecutors have called a U.S.-supported plot to overthrow Hun Sen’s rule, and two months after his arrest, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP for its role in the alleged plot and banned 118 of its officials from political activities.
The move to dissolve the CNRP was 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 CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Hun Sen has since maintained a relentless crackdown on CNRP activists and former local representatives. Human Rights Watch said it had documented the arbitrary arrests of a dozen people with ties to the party between late January and April, as the country fought the coronavirus.
Cambodian politicians can sometimes take advantage of unforeseen circumstances to come to agreements that benefit the country, Cambodian political analyst Meas Nee said, speaking to RFA on Tuesday.
“Sometimes, national reconciliation can start from this point where politicians find they can come to a shared understanding,” Meas Nee said. “This is showing a good attitude. It shows they are mature,” he added.
“It is not hard to think that we may find now there are political solutions, but this is only a starting point. Still, we have hope,” he said.
“It is a part of Cambodian culture to share condolences,” said government spokesman Phay Siphan, adding though that Tuesday’s personal expressions of good will may not lead Cambodia’s courts to dismiss the charges against Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy.
“This is a positive step, but it will be difficult for the courts,” he said.
Call for targeted sanctions
Meanwhile, Cambodians living in Australia have called on their government to pass legislation, modeled on the U.S. Global Magnitsky Act, targeting sanctions against Cambodian officials accused of corruption and human rights violations.
In an April 30 statement, the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said similar laws have already been passed in the U.S., Canada, and the UK.
“Adopting Magnitsky-style legislation would bring Australia into alignment with these jurisdictions and would improve Cambodia’s civil society organizations’ access to sanctioning mechanisms for human rights violations and acts of corruption,” FIDH said.
“For the sake of freedom in Cambodia, we must have a law that lets Cambodian officials know that if they breach the law, they cannot set foot on Cambodian soil," said Chea Youhorn, outgoing mayor of the Melbourne suburb Dandenong.
“This is a positive step forward,” added Cambodia-born MP for Victoria Tak Meng Heang, saying he hopes that Australia’s parliament will discuss the measure when its current recess ends.
Sok Ey San, spokesman for Cambodia’s ruling CPP, said that though Australia is free to make its own decisions, he does not believe Australia will take any action against Cambodia. Similar requests have been made against Cambodia’s government in the past, and no action was taken, he said.
“This is not a new request. However, Cambodia’s situation is not like what they have described,” he said.
Meanwhile, Cambodians living in Cambodia also voiced support for a new law aimed at punishing government officials for abusing their power to persecute the poor.
“We all want to be free, but right now if you speak out they will put you in prison,” a woman giving her name as Sophaon told RFA. “We are afraid to speak out. We are frustrated over many issues, but we can’t say anything about them.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.