More than a thousand Cambodians living in the United States, Canada, and France demonstrated in front of the Cambodian embassy in Washington on Sunday to demand that Cambodia release political opposition leader Kem Sokha from prison.
Rallying earlier at the White House, they also urged stronger U.S. pressure on Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen to reverse the Southeast Asian nation’s retreat from democracy and slide into authoritarian rule.
Speaking at the rally, Kem Monovithya—daughter of jailed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Kem Sokha—said that while the U.S. and other concerned countries may do their best to help Cambodia, the real power to effect change in the country lies in the hands of the Cambodian people themselves.
“The bottom line is that you yourselves should be prepared to decide what you want your country to be,” she said.
Pa Nguon Teang, executive director of the Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Center for Independent Media, called the demonstration on International Human Rights Day a message to Hun Sen that Cambodia’s people will not accept living under a dictatorship.
“If the government makes no move to reconsider its actions in a timely manner, there will be more mass protests [in Cambodia] too,” he said.
“Hun Sen has robbed the CNRP of its legitimate seats [in the country’s parliament],” Montreal resident Soeu Sokhom said.
“He has dissolved the opposition party and betrayed the over three million Cambodians who voted for the CNRP” in local elections held earlier this year, she said.
“We strongly disagree with what he has done to the political opposition and to our country,” she said.
Hun Sen has faced widespread condemnation in recent months over his government’s move to formally dissolve the CNRP, his only effective political opposition, as well as for orchestrating the closure of independent media outlets and cracking down on nongovernmental organizations ahead of national elections scheduled for next year.
Speaking in front of the Cambodian embassy on Sunday, CNRP deputy president Eng Chhai Eang said “We ask Hun Sen’s government to reverse its decision and allow the CNRP to engage in politics as normal.”
“We also demand the immediate and unconditional release of Kem Sokha and all political prisoners.”
Cambodia’s ambassador to the U.S. should work to represent Cambodia’s people and not the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) controlled by Hun Sen, he said.
“We hope Hun Sen will address our concerns in a timely manner in order to avoid more international sanctions.”
Writing on social media on Monday, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan rejected the demands raised by protesters on Sunday, adding, “Any protests by Cambodians abroad have violated the rules of law and democracy of Cambodia.”
“The dissolution of the CNRP was done according to judicial procedures,” he said.
Cambodian Council of Ministers spokeman Phay Siphan meanwhile threatened the use of force against demonstrations in Cambodia itself.
“We and the armed forces are prepared to suppress all such forms of protest,” he said.
Hun Sen’s crackdown on his opponents has also brought condemnation from Washington and restrictions on travel visas to the United States by Cambodian government officials.
Writing in support of the restrictions, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has emerged as a strong critic of Hun Sen’s actions, called the visa curbs “a good first step toward restoring democratic gains in Cambodia and a much-needed response to China’s growing influence in Phnom Penh.”
“Hun Sen faces a simple choice: release opposition leader Kem Sokha, allow Sam Rainsy to return, reinstitute the Cambodia National Rescue Party, lift his ban on open broadcasting and free speech — or risk further punitive action from the United States,” Cruz wrote on the blog Texas GOP Vote.
Sam Rainsy was the CNRP president until went into exile in November 2015 in the face of arrest warrants issued by courts beholden to Hun sen.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Richard Finney.