Opposition leader Kem Sokha was prevented from assisting in humanitarian efforts for flood-affected communities in Banteay Meanchey province, only to be granted permission by Prime Minister Hun Sen in a leaked audio clip.
Nineteen provinces across the country have been severely affected by flooding after incessant rains in the last week. At least 18 people have died, 25,000 evacuated from their homes, and 210,000 affected by the flooding, according to the National Committee for Disaster Management.
As Cambodia’s elite have made customary donations to the country to fund relief work, Kem Sokha wanted to provide humanitarian assistance to communities in Banteay Meanchey’s Mongkul Borey district on Thursday. But he was denied permission to carry out the relief work, according to Meach Sovannara, a former Cambodia National Rescue Party member.
“This was because the authorities in Chamnaom commune were afraid of being perceived by their superiors of sympathizing with opposition politics, so they did not permit the event,” Meach Sovannara said.
It was disappointing, he said, that local officials were unable to distinguish between political activity and humanitarian assistance during a crisis and that Kem Sokha had to cancel the event.
But, a leaked audio clip of Prime Minister Hun Sen had him instructing provincial authorities to allow Kem Sokha, and other politicians, to provide aid in affected areas.
Council of Ministers' spokesperson Phay Siphan confirmed the contents of the leaked audio clip, adding that Hun Sen issued those instructions Friday morning.
“Not only for His Excellency Kem Sokha but for all political parties – no matter who they are – when they bring donations to the people, please coordinate so that the donations will be handed to the people,” Hun Sen is heard saying in the clip obtained by VOA Khmer.
“This is what we need to do jointly with all political parties, politicians, and charitable people.”
It was unclear if Kem Sokha was going ahead with his plans to provide assistance in Banteay Meanchey, but he announced a donation of $5,000 for the government’s relief efforts.
The former CNRP president is still under trial on treason charges and is banned from politics till 2022, on account of a Supreme Court verdict that dissolved the opposition party.
Trial proceedings were suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Kem Sokha’s lawyers have requested the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to resume the trial.
The opposition leader has made several provincial trips across the country, mostly during religious holidays, but also to meet small groups of people and supporters. Government-friendly media and court officials have questioned if these trips bordered on political activity, an accusation denied by Kem Sokha’s lawyers.
Prime Minister Hun Sen was in Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district on Thursday, where he praised his government’s efforts to help citizens affected by the floods while taking aim at opposition members in exile.
“Whatever people are speaking from outside the country is one thing, but what matters is that our monks, citizens, authorities, and armed forces are working together and unifying,” he said, dressed in military fatigues.
“This is the special point and this is the strength of Hun Sen government.”
Hun Sen said his priority was to keep “people alive” because only living people can demand their rights.
“Whoever wants to discuss human rights and democracy, please do – be my guest. But for me, my very first priority is to keep people alive,” he said.
Cambodian citizens have taken to Facebook to criticize the government’s filling of lakes, especially in Phnom Penh, which they say exacerbated the flooding.
These views were reflected in a July report issued by four NGOs, where the findings showed that the filling of the Boeung Tumpun area in southern Phnom Penh would put one million people at risk of flooding. The lake is being reclaimed for a satellite city, which is being developed by several prominent businesses and tycoons.
Alejandro Gonzalez Davidson, founder of Mother Nature Cambodia, said the current flooding was an ostensible example of the dangers of filling the country’s lakes.
“We also sincerely hope that the Hun Sen regime learns from what is happening and puts an end to all plans to fill in more lakes and wetlands, not just in Phnom Penh but in other cities too,” Davidson said.
Hun Sen took umbrage with suggestions that the filling of lakes around Phnom Penh had contributed to the severe flooding.
“Now take a close look at the upstream part of Prek Thnot river. Can you find any lake filled there and who did it?”