Cambodia’s opposition leader Kem Sokha, who is under judicial restrictions against political activities amid an ongoing trial on charges of treason, has quietly begun tours of the country, although his motives are unclear.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday, Kem Sokha’s lawyer, Meg Sopheary, said the chief of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had traveled to Siem Reap province on Sunday, following recent trips to the provinces of Tbong Khmum, Pursat, Kampot, Battambang, and Banteay Meanchey.
“Since he was allowed by the court to [only] travel inside Cambodia, he goes out occasionally for sightseeing,” she said.
“It’s normal for anyone—staying inside the house for such a long time is boring.”
According to photos posted to his Facebook account, Kem Sokha has been traveling and meeting with local residents since at least early July.
The CNRP leader was arrested in September 2017 over an alleged plot to overthrow the government with the help of the U.S. government and the Supreme Court banned his party in November that year for its supposed role in the scheme.
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 ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Kem Sokha was released from pre-trial detention to house arrest in September 2018 and granted bail in November last year by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the terms of which allowed him to travel within Cambodia but restricted him from taking part in any political activities.
His trial began on Jan. 15 but has been postponed while the country grapples with the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
Kem Sokha maintains his innocence and his lawyers have all along said that prosecutors lack evidence to convict. His trial has been dismissed as a sham by rights groups and Western governments, and in March, U.S. Ambassador Patrick Murphy issued a rare statement denouncing what he said were “fabricated conspiracy theories about the United States” introduced by the prosecution.
The recent trips come about a month after Hun Sen met with Kem Sokha after the latter sent condolences over the death of Hun Sen’s mother-in-law and attended her funeral. The subject of the 50-minute meeting was never made public.
Speaking to RFA on Monday, analysts welcomed Kem Sokha’s decision to exercise his right to travel and meet with the people, even if he could have begun doing so months ago.
“Even though foreign diplomats have been visiting with him at his residence, they don’t come every day, so there is nothing wrong with traveling out to the provinces,” said political commentator Seng Sary.
“I also believe he wants to test the court’s stance and its conditions imposed on him.”
Political commentator Meas Ny said it was unclear whether Kem Sokha’s travel was his own decision or “he was told to do so,” presumably by Hun Sen or someone else in the ruling party.
“If he was told to do so, it is likely some sort of new political trap,” he said.
“True democrats should think hard about which path they intend to walk because [the ruling party] will never allow the leaders of the CNRP [Kem Sokha and self-exiled, acting party chief Sam Rainsy] to unify.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.