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‘Culture of Dialogue’ Won’t Help Imprisoned Activists, Analysts Say

Meach Sovannara (C), a member of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), cries next to CNRP President Sam Rainsy (L) and Deputy President Kem Sokha before a Buddhist ceremony at the CNRP office in Phnom Penh April 13, 2015.

Opposition leaders have been unable to negotiate a release of 11 political activists handed steep sentences earlier this month for their alleged involvement in violent demonstrations last year.

The 11 activists, including US citizen Meach Sovannara, are being held at Prey Sar prison, outside Phnom Penh, facing up to 20 years in prison each, despite the efforts of the Cambodia National Rescue Party.

Ou Virak, head of the think tank Future Forum, said the so-called “culture of dialogue” touted by both political parties has not helped in this regard. Rather, he said, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party is more likely to demand an “exchange” for the prisoners. “From my prediction, [the opposition] may stop staging demonstrations or working so hard on border issues,” he said. Cambodia has become “fragile,” he said, “because we don’t have a trustworthy judiciary.”

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the “culture of dialogue” cannot be used to deal with what he called “legal matters.”

Kem Ley, an independent political analyst, called the “culture of dialogue” catchphrase a “trick of the ruling party,” one that could hurt the opposition by curbing public criticism of the CPP in the run-up to local and national elections.

The new election law, meanwhile, says that senior party members are legally liable for the entire party, creating the potential for dissolving the Rescue Party if its leaders are too outspoken, he added.

“I think the release of these people could have been made in the past, had the [Rescue Party] stopped digging up and displaying the realities of border issues and Vietnamese immigrants,” he said.

Rescue Party spokesman Yem Ponhearith said the party is speaking with Interior Minister Sar Kheng in an attempt to negotiate the release of the 11 activists. He dismissed concerns that the “culture of dialogue” would hurt the opposition, which is strengthened by an information environment where wrongdoing is quickly communicated amid the population. “So the CNRP will receive strong support,” he said.

The defense attorneys for the 11 activists have meanwhile filed an appeal to their convictions. “Generally, we don’t have much faith in the courts, because this is the court in Cambodia, but we don’t have a choice,” Choung Chou Ngy, a lawyer for five of the defendants, said. “We try to resist in a legal way, which is all we can do.”