More than a year ago, the Cambodian authorities tried to arrest opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party president Kem Sokha. Rather than raid the party’s headquarters, where Sokha was holed up and supporters had gathered in solidarity, security forces eventually backed down.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, Sokha, 64, was finally detained at his home in Phnom Penh, just hours after he returned from an overseas trip. Apparently detained on allegations of “treason”, the arrest was seen by rights groups and the CNRP as yet another move in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s playbook to remove opposition ahead of next year’s crucial general election.
If found guilty, Sokha could spend up to 30 years in prison. His arrest follows a crackdown on critical media outlets, including the forced closure of the influential English-language Cambodia Daily newspaper and several local radio stations that broadcast factual programming in rural Cambodia, where the CPP traditionally draws its support base.
Ahead of the arrest, Fresh News, a pro-CPP news website, published anonymous claims that Sokha and his family were “politically wedded” to foreign agents and U.S. Interests with whom he was plotting to overthrow the government.
The government cited a video of Sokha broadcast by the Cambodian Broadcasting Network in Australia more than three years ago as evidence of this alleged “plot”.
“This act of conspiracy is treason,” the government said in a statement, adding that Sokha’s arrest was lawful.
The government’s press department released a video purporting to show Sokha giving the speech in Melbourne in 2014 where he allegedly claimed he had received U.S. support to defeat Prime Minister Hun Sen by being advised to leave politics for a while and to form Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
This alone was evidence of treason, according to the government’s reasoning.
“We have no choice. Do we have to arrest him alone or send troops to the party headquarters?” Hun Sen asked.
He added that the Cambodian regime would not seek to identify those foreigners supposedly behind the opposition “plot” to win elections.
The CNRP said in a statement on Sunday that Sokha’s arrest violated the law and constitution, calling for the “unconditional and immediate release” of its president.
“The rushed arrest of Kem Sokha is politically motivated and violates the law and constitution since the arrest was made over midnight and while he had immunity,” the statement said.
Mu Sochua, CNRP vice president, denied claims of a conspiracy directed from abroad to defeat Hun Sen’s government. “The loss of the opposition party is the loss of over three million people’s voices,” she said, referring to the party’s estimated voter base.
Prior to his arrest, Sokha had traveled to Thailand to meet with diplomats from 10 countries. After the meetings, he wrote on Facebook that the envoys had expressed concerns over the deteriorating political situation in Cambodia.
His daughter, Kem Monovithya, tweeted that her father’s arrest was conducted in a “mafia manner” and marked the “end of [the pretense of] democracy” in Cambodia.
Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manith, however, took to Twitter to claim Sokha’s arrest was proof of a conspiracy led by the United States, without providing evidence.
Hong Kimsuon of the Cambodian Defenders Project, a group of legal experts, said there was no evidence in the video to back up government claims of a conspiracy.
“He [Sokha] talked about political principles to walk with democracy to change the country’s leader,” he said. “There was nothing said about any attempts to topple the legitimate government.”
Meas Ny, a political analyst, said the CNRP had fallen into a ruling party “trap”, adding that any reaction from supporters against Sokha’s arrest would likely me met with violence.
Sok Eysan, CPP spokesman, claimed the government had sufficient evidence to prosecute Sokha. “If there wasn’t sufficient evidence, they wouldn’t arrest him,” he said.
When asked why the only evidence presented by the government so far was a years-old video of a public meeting in which Sokha had spoken of his motivations for entering politics, Eysan said “the timing doesn’t matter.”
Phay Siphan, government spokesman, agreed with Eysan, saying the CNRP had “trained like rebels” and that Sokha had “incited a people’s movement”.
If Sokha is found guilty, under the political parties law the CNRP could be dissolved.
Arend Zwartjes, U.S. Embassy spokesman, said: “We note with grave concern the Cambodian government's arrest of Kem Sokha, respected leader of the political opposition, on a number of charges that appear to be politically motivated.”
Ou Virak, founder of the Future Forum think tank, said the CPP was gambling with the economy by taking such strong measures against the opposition.
“This will further strike fear into the Cambodian people. It will likely affect the investment climate.
I think many ... will be rethinking their investment strategy.”
Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said in an email that the CNRP had “played by the rules in a dance orchestrated by the ruling party.”
“The saying goes, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’ In Cambodia, it seems to be if you can’t beat them, arrest them; jail them; exile them,” he said.
“You can’t have a functioning opposition when its head is in prison. Cambodian democracy is dead. Long live Cambodian democracy!”
A researcher at Australia’s Griffith University, Lee Morgenbesser said the upcoming election would be “the worst since 1981.”
“It will be devoid of freedom, fairness and competition. The CNRP would be wise to boycott the entire process, which would draw attention to the repression they are experiencing.”