The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is well-versed in managing threats to their power. After a close-call at the 2013 elections, the CPP is taking no chances ahead of upcoming polls.
The first and most obvious target is the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which has been facing a sustained attack since last November when charismatic leader Sam Rainsy was threatened with arrest on dated defamation charges and went into self-exile in France.
Rainsy has spent similar periods abroad prior to the last two elections in 2008 and 2013. This time, with Rainsy out of the picture, the CPP’s sites have shifted to the next obvious target, deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha. Since 26 May Kem Sokha has been holed up in the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh in a stand-off with the government to see who will blink first.
The hounding of Kem Sokha began when recordings of a phone conversation allegedly between himself and a mistress were published on social media. It is still unclear how this conversation was recorded and whether it was the result of illegal phone-tapping. Regardless, the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) have descended on this issue with a level of dedication noticeably absent from their investigations into logging and land-grabbing.
Throughout March the story dominated the headlines. The alias of the woman allegedly having the affair with Kem Sokha was 25 year-old Ms. Khom Chandaraty, who also goes by the nickname Srey Mon. Although initially denying she was involved with the politician, after repeated grilling by the ACU she admitted to having an affair with him and accused her legal counsel of convincing her to lie. It has been reported that Srey Mon received immunity from potential charges against her in exchange for her statement.
Srey Mon’s legal counsel was provided to her by ADHOC, one of Cambodia’s oldest human rights organisations, and sure enough they became the next targets of the ACU probe. Four staff members from human rights organisation ADHOC, and one National Election Committee official have since been jailed, charged with bribing Srey Mon to deny the high-profile affair.
Civil society has held “Black Monday” protests to mark each week since their arrest and to maintain pressure on the government to release the human rights workers, however these protests have so far only led to more arrests.
These arrests are part of the legal gymnastics deemed necessary to try and legitimate the arrest of the CNRP acting leader. Sokha, like all members of the National Assembly, possesses parliamentary immunity in theory. However to get around this, the CPP has taken to creatively interpreting an in flagrante delicto exception contained in the Constitution that allows for the arrest of a parliamentarian if he or she is caught in the act of committing a crime.
After refusing to appear twice when called to appear as a “witness” in the Srey Mon case, without knowing what the charges indeed were, last week social media was flooded with pictures of heavily armed paramilitary forces attempting to arrest the deputy opposition leader both in his car and at the CNRP headquarters.
The arrest attempt was made prior to any warrant being issued and was based on the fact that Kem Sokha had been “caught in the act” of ignoring a summons, which in itself had not been properly issued.
The contortions the government has put itself through in order to try to make Kem Sokha’s arrest appear legitimate show how far the country has come from last year’s professed desire for a “culture of dialogue” between the two major parties.
In the past year twenty government opponents have been imprisoned, and rights group LICADHO has been threatened with “serious consequences” for publishing a list of the names of political prisoners on its website.
Another to be caught up in the whirlwind that surrounds this decidedly dull “scandal” is Ou Virak, an independent analyst and head of the Future Forum policy institute. During an interview with Radio Free Asia, Virak suggested the ACU’s case against Kem Sokha was politically motivated, for which the CPP sued him for defamation, requesting $100,000 in compensation.
As international observers become increasingly “concerned” about the current situation, the government-run Cambodian Human Rights Committee has attempted to justify the CPP’s actions, however this backfired spectacularly. The Committee produced a short video overlaid with dramatic music entitled “Using Rights in Anarchic Way”, which unfortunately appears to have since been removed from the internet. In the video photos are juxtaposed of Syria and Libya before and after civil war, claiming the destruction had been caused by “the excessive use of rights.” In less than 24 hours the video was being lambasted online for including images from Singapore and Doha to depict pre-war Libya, and Vietnam to depict Cambodia.
The government regularly brings up the spectre of civil war, particularly the case of Syria, as a warning to Cambodians of what happens when a government grants its citizens too much freedom.
The flimsy legal charades the CPP uses to target their opponents demonstrate just how frightened the government is of losing the next elections. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is only 63, has previously indicated he intends to rule for another thirty years, and many have speculated that he is grooming his sons to replace him.
Should current trends continue and the CNRP win the election in 2018, the CPP will be faced with a situation of either denying the loss or refusing to cede power, both of which could have financial implications in the donor-dependent country. For them it is far preferable to pacify donors with a solid win at the next election, made easier if all opposition leaders and outspoken critics are behind bars or exiled overseas.
With Sam Rainsy far away in France, the CPP risks creating an image of Kem Sokha under house-arrest that invites comparisons with Aung San Suu Kyi, which the CPP is sure to find alarming considering her party’s landslide at the polls last year. One thing is for sure: it’s going to be a bumpy ride into next year’s commune elections.
Ana McKenzie is a pen name. The author is a consultant and writer based in Southeast Asia