Opposition Brass to Return to Cambodia in January to Face Courts, Seek Political Reconciliation

2020.12.01
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Opposition Brass to Return to Cambodia in January to Face Courts, Seek Political Reconciliation Deputy president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party Mu Sochua (L) listens as the party's acting chief Sam Rainsy speaks during an interview in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Nov. 12, 2019.
AFP

The top brass of Cambodia’s banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party will return to the country from self-imposed exile early next year to face legal action and work towards political reconciliation with the ruling party, CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua said Tuesday.

The CNRP said in a statement following a Nov. 27-28 virtual meeting of its Permanent Committee and other top officials overseas that “all CNRP leadership and exiled activists who were summoned by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court shall return to Cambodia” to face questioning over allegations of “incitement” and “treason,” they insist are politically motivated.

“Mu Sochua, deputy president of the CNRP, will lead the CNRP officials and activists in their return to Cambodia on Jan. 4, 2021,” the statement added.

The announcement is notable in that the group will not include acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who has stayed outside of Cambodia since leaving in 2015 to avoid a string of charges and convictions. He was among those recently summoned by the court, and rejects all the charges.

Sam Rainsy had tried to return on Nov. 9, 2019 to lead nonviolent protests against Prime Minister Hun Sen, urging Cambodian migrant workers abroad and members of the military to join him. However, his plan to enter Cambodia from Thailand was thwarted when he was refused permission to board a Thai Airways plane in Paris.

When asked Tuesday why she would be leading the CNRP back to Cambodia instead of Sam Rainsy, Mu Sochua told RFA’s Khmer Service that “women are gentler and more flexible and less confrontational than men.”

Mu Sochua, who also holds U.S. citizenship, said she had no doubts that authorities would arrest her on her return.

“Even though I know what the courts are like, I will return anyway out of respect for my people,” she said, referring to a judicial system that is widely seen as beholden to the government.

“Also, my husband’s ashes are still in Cambodia and I pray for him every day.”

Mu Sochua and her late husband, Scott Leiper, are parents to three daughters, including women's rights activist, Devi Leiper O'Malley. Leiper died in 2016.

She said she and other CNRP officials-in-exile are willing to face arrest “as long as the nation survives.”

“There are hundreds of us who have been charged and we are willing to go to court, and at the same time, we want to see a reconciliation,” she said.

“Samdech Prime Minister [Hun Sen] said that a reconciliation can take place only when cases in court have concluded. So, we are going to appear in court and in order for us to do so, we must be allowed return to Cambodia.”

Mass trials

Last month, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court summoned at least 113 individuals connected to the CNRP to stand trial together, most of whom face charges of conspiracy and incitement to sow chaos in society—crimes punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Thirty-three of them appeared in court to answer questions on Nov. 26, leading presiding judges to split them into two groups for hearings to be held in January and March.

The prospect of a rapid mass trial of the opposition prompted Rhona Smith, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, to express serious concerns in a statement ahead of proceedings last week. She said such actions appear to be “politically motivated, lacking clear legal grounds and constitute a serious violation of the due process rights, firmly established by international human rights law.”

CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 over an alleged plot to overthrow the government with U.S. help. Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned his party in November that year for its supposed role in the scheme.

The move to dissolve the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.

Hun Sen has privately mused that Kem Sokha’s treason trial, which was cut short in March this year, may not restart until 2024. Observers say Hun Sen may be pushing ahead with a mass trial as part of a bid to undercut Kem Sokha’s support base and entice him into leading one of the country’s various lesser-known opposition parties that stand little chance of winning at the polls.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan on Tuesday appeared to confirm Mu Sochua’s suspicions about her fate upon returning to Cambodia.

“The law will be enforced upon those who have been charged,” he said. “Those returnees who are not charged [by the court] will go to hotels [for quarantine amid the coronavirus pandemic] and those who have been charged will to go to prison.”

Demonstrating leadership

Kem Sokha, who is under judicial supervision and can only travel inside the country, called on Cambodians in a post to his Facebook page to work towards unification—particularly those in leadership roles.

“To eliminate others is a waste of time and national resources,” he said.

He went on to say that there was little he can do to help while his freedoms are restricted.

“Some places I go, authorities have offered to cooperate with me, but in other places, they surveil my activities, take photos, and wiretap my conversations, even though I am only working in a humanitarian capacity or enjoying my family privacy at my homes and farms,” he said.

“Despite this, I will do what I can for the Khmer people by not breaching the law and not impinging on the rights of others.”

Speaking to RFA, political commentator Seng Sary said Kem Sokha’s statement proposes a way to solve the country’s problems to the people.

“Kem Sokha’s message demonstrates political leadership through nonviolent means,” he said.

“It doesn’t threaten the ruling party while providing hope to democrats.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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