WASHINGTON - The leaders of Cambodia’s two opposition parties, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, will travel to the US next month to lobby for Sam Rainsy’s return to Cambodia before national elections next year. Sam Rainsy has been in exile for more than two years, having been found guilty on a number of criminal charges he says are politically motivated.
The two men, who hope to meet with US State Department officials and other groups in the US, are making their trip in the midst of the high-profile arrest of Mam Sonando, the owner of one the few remaining independent radio stations in the country, Beehive. Mam Sonando is accused of leading a secessionist movement in Kratie province, a charge critics say is likely a fabrication.
All of this adds to mounting concerns that the space for free speech and association are shrinking, as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party makes continued political gains at the national and local level.
Lao Monghay, an independent political analyst in Phnom Penh, told “Hello VOA” on Thursday that recent events should cause concern about the development of the country as a democracy. These events and others have created a freeze on political expression and the engagement of people in their society.
“When people do not care about society, society is going to dissolve,” he said. Crackdowns on parties and groups that are not aligned with the government have created a culture where people “don’t do politics, don’t speak out about that which affects politics,” he said.
Sam Rainsy, who has led to opposition for many years, has been living in exile since 2009, after he destroyed markers on the Vietnamese border in Svay Rieng province. He was found guilty of incitement and destruction of property over the incident, and with more crimes after he posted a border map on his website the government said was false. He now faces more than 10 years of jail time if he returns, and the guilty charges against him make him ineligible to run in parliamentary elections slated for July 2013.
Members of his Sam Rainsy Party have since seen their immunity stripped and have been jailed. Opposition-friendly journalists have also been jailed, especially under a law that makes defamation a criminal offense.
His party and the Human Rights Party have agreed to join in a unified opposition, under a general Democrat Movement, following gains made by the ruling CPP in local elections in June. Full details of the merger have not been released, and election monitors say if they begin a new party they will have to give up the seats in parliament each party currently enjoys—26 for the Sam Rainsy Party and three for the Human Rights Party.
Nevertheless, both men will come to Washington in hopes of finding a way to put pressure on Prime Minister Hun Sen and the government to find a way for Sam Rainsy’s return.
Suy Seng Hong, who heads the Sam Rainsy Party in the state of Florida and organized the visit, said its main purpose “is to force the return of Sam Rainsy to participate in next year’s general election.”
“We hope this time will be more fruitful because we’ve shown our seriousness,” he said. “So I hope the US State Department and US Congress will support our good ideas.”
Both men will attend a forum for Khmer minorities living in Vietnam, known as the Khmer Kampuchea Krom, in Montreal, next week.
It remains to be seen whether they can successfully lobby for Sam Rainsy’s return. Prime Minister Hun Sen has said there will be no political solution and that his case is a matter for the judiciary.
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said Sam Rainsy’s position on the border should be a matter for voters, not the courts.
“In democratic countries, they don’t bring this type of case to the courts when they have difference of opinion on border issues,” he said. “They leave it to the people to judge or make decisions during the election.”
With Sam Rainsy out of the country, his party is at a disadvantage in elections, where people look at leadership and policy before they vote, he said. Without that leadership to encourage party supporters, the election will be difficult, he said.
Lao Monghay said victories by politicians in exile are not unheard of, however, including in Cambodia’s own history.
Meanwhile, a crackdown on Mam Sonando and his Association of Democrats continues. Mam Sonando remains in jail on charges related to sedition, and now more members of his association have come under pressure for their association with him.
Members have been putting together a petition to have him released from custody at Prey Sar prison, outside Phnom Penh. On Friday, authorities briefly detained 75-year-old Chhey Lay, a member who was helping gather thumb-prints for the petition. He was held for three hours until he agreed not to continue collecting prints, which authorities compared to “incitement,” he said later.