WASHINGTON – [Editor’s Note: The following text tells the life story of Kem Sokha, president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party until it was dissolved last year, in his own words. It is part of an interview featured in a forthcoming book, “Seeking Justice in Cambodia: Human Rights Defenders Speak Out,” by Australian researcher Sue Coffey. The volume features interviews with 15 prominent Cambodian rights defenders. From human rights activist to politician and eventual opposition leader, Kem Sokha has played a key role in shaping Cambodia’s political culture and discourse. Ms. Coffey’s conversation with Kem Sokha took place just a few days before he was arrested at his home in Phnom Penh in early September 2017, on vague charges of “treason” that many have called politically motivated. He has remained in detention in a remote prison near the Vietnamese border for the past year.]
I was born on 27 June 1953 in Tram Kok district, Takeo province, the southern part of Phnom Penh. My family were farmers but my grandfather was a commune chief. They were from different villages, but my great-grandfather was also a commune chief.
When the Khmer Rouge came to Phnom Penh, I was about twenty-two. I had to go back to my birthplace in Takeo province. About two weeks after I arrived there, the Khmer Rouge took my father and killed him. It was terrible for our family. From that time I needed to adjust in order to work as a farmer for the Khmer Rouge in a youth group.
In the youth group we had to work very hard, harder than the elderly people. At that time we were not allowed to stay together as a family—I had to stay in the youth group. We were exhausted both physically and mentally, yet under the threat that they can kill us anytime. It was a hard and frightening time.
Before the Vietnamese came I could no longer stay in my province, as the Khmer Rouge moved my family and me in 1978 to Kandal province. Then, when the Vietnamese came, we went from Kandal province, Kien Svay district, to Phnom Penh.
From the beginning of the time that I started to live in Phnom Penh, compared with the Khmer Rouge regime, things were better. I didn’t lack for material things to live simply, certainly it was much better than the previous four years had been. But there were other difficulties, as the Vietnamese knew I had connections with the resistance movement on the border.
They were the freedom fighters, the group run by Son Sann, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF), and I kept contact secretly with them. Why? Because, as young people, we didn’t want a foreign invasion, so I wanted to fight for freedom, not just for me but for our country. Our country had been through so much, we wanted freedom for the future. So I stayed in contact with this group and we held secret meetings, in different places in Phnom Penh. But the Vietnamese came to know about this and were very unhappy.
In Sihanoukville, I had to work in the brewery factory, and there really was no work. They were really determined to move me away from the people, the public.
They followed us and they arrested many people. After that, they moved me from the position I held, working in the commune in Phnom Penh. In 1979 I was the deputy commune chief in Phnom Penh when the Vietnamese came. First I worked in the municipality of Phnom Penh and after that, I worked in the commune district of Toul Kork. But after they came to know about my connections with the freedom fighters, I was called in by the Chief of Police in Phnom Penh. He asked me why I was connecting with these people and who I was in contact with. I responded that I just wanted to find a way to establish who is good, who is not, who will work for our country. And he told me that I would have to change my mind and activities, otherwise I would have problems.
But I kept in contact with this group, and when the government found out about this they moved me from my position and I was constantly followed. By 1981 I knew that I could not stay, it was too dangerous. I wanted to go away but I didn’t want to make the dangerous journey through the border.
At that time the government was recruiting good students to go to socialist countries to continue to study, so I decided to apply, and sat the examination. I passed the test and was sent to Czechoslovakia, which of course was a socialist regime.
I discussed what I should study with my friend and he advised me to study for a technical degree. Before the Khmer Rouge came, I was in the second year of studying law at the faculty of law in Phnom Penh, but of course I did not get to finish that. The advice that I was given was that the communist regime didn’t want lawyers, they wanted technicians! If I studied law or politics, I would not find it easy to get a job. So I decided to study chemistry for my degree. I studied chemistry for five years in Prague, and then in 1986 I came back.
But after I returned, they still followed me. When I came back I worked in the Ministry of Industry and the Minister was okay with me, but not the Vice-Minister. He was the chief of the Communist Party in the ministry, Mr Sok Eysan, and now is a spokesman for the CPP. He had me followed, and they didn’t give me a good position even though I had finished my master’s degree. I had a diploma in engineering chemistry, but they were not going to give me a senior position. Instead, they sent me far away from the ministry in Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville.
In Sihanoukville I had to work in the brewery factory, and there really was no work. They were really determined to move me away from the people, the public. So I resolved that I had to do something because my role in the factory was not productive. So I volunteered to teach the students.
That time in Sihanoukville there was only a primary school, no high school. So young people could not progress to study at a higher level, for a baccalaureate, as there were no teachers.
I decided to teach physics, chemistry and mathematics. Then they opened the school for students to study at high school level, so I began to teach the students in this range of subjects. The Governor knew that I was volunteering this teaching service and so they gave me some land for me to make a living. I planted pepper and began to work with local farmers, as well as teaching the students. I worked very hard in both areas!
At this time, 1989, I knew that negotiations were underway towards the Paris Peace Agreement. I met with the Minister of Industry and asked to come back to Phnom Penh because I’d heard about the negotiations and was excited by the future possibilities. So I came back to Phnom Penh and they sent me to work in the wine industry of Phnom Penh. So in my work at that time I founded one of the wines they called ‘Mekong wine’, it was my formula.
I think the problem of human rights is the biggest problem for Cambodia. If we want to develop the country, we should first and foremost respect human rights.
After I came back to Phnom Penh in 1989, some of the people from the KPNLF—Son Sann’s people—came to stay with me at my house during 1990. Then the Paris Peace Agreement was signed and UN people began to come. I wasn’t yet open to joining a political party, but in 1991 I established a human rights organisation called Human Rights Vigilance of Cambodia.
I founded this because I’d come to believe that for Cambodia the big issue was the problem of human rights. Violations of human rights were everywhere, and I believed it was very important to start to address this. I knew I really cared about human rights.
From Cambodia’s history I knew that under the Khmer Rouge, and the Vietnamese, people were very badly treated—the government accused people, arrested them, killed them, so there were many human rights violations against anyone who criticised the government.
I think the problem of human rights is the biggest problem for Cambodia. If we want to develop the country we should first and foremost respect human rights. It was so terrible under Pol Pot, and there were also human rights abuses under the previous government. I didn’t want this situation to come back to Cambodia. The people didn’t have any power.
So when I established this human rights organisation, I wanted to study, to learn about this subject, and so I was sent to Geneva by the UN Advance Mission in Cambodia (UNAMIC). At that time UNAMIC had arrived, to prepare for the full UNTAC. Mr McNamara was the chair of the human rights unit in UNAMIC. I worked with him, and also with Mr Basil Fernando, the deputy of the unit and now the chair of the ASEAN human rights unit in Hong Kong. In working with these two men I learned a great deal about what human rights means.
When I went to Geneva, there was a major conference. I lobbied representatives of several countries, Japan and others, asking them to send representatives to Cambodia to follow events in human rights. I met many people and said I thought the human rights problem in Cambodia was very important. Finally the UN decided to send a special representative, and others did too. Then I went to the United States, in 1992, my first time there. I met with many people from organisations concerned with human rights, like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch. By the time I returned to Cambodia I had a lot of support from people working in human rights.
But I began to think that if I stayed working in an NGO in the Cambodian situation I would have no power to solve the problems, and that is when I decided to join a political party. My objective was to promote human rights, and I had an opportunity to join Son Sann’s party in 1992.
At the first convention, and because of my previous support for the party, they accepted me as a member of the KPNLF’s steering committee. So I joined the party and when the election was held in 1993, I ran as candidate for Takeo province, my birthplace. I won the seat and became a constitutional member, as we did not yet have the National Assembly. We helped to draft the new Cambodian Constitution, and Chapter 3,Articles 31–50 are about human rights. Much of the chapter reflected my ideas.
The new Constitution was drafted in 1993 after the election, and as a member of the Constitutional Committee I discussed many of the issues with Mr McNamara and Mr Basil Fernando. They gave me many ideas and I raised these and many other issues in the drafting of the Constitution. Often in debates over the draft, people really didn’t know about many of these issues, but they accepted the ideas I put forward, except in one key area. I wanted to establish a human rights institution in the Constitution called a National Human Rights Independent Commission.
I raised this, people didn’t agree with me, and it was put to the vote. Only about 20 people supported me of 120. They didn’t understand why this would be important, but I went on raising it, with discussion on every article. Finally the assembly couldn’t work smoothly because I kept raising this demand, so politicians got together to work out a way forward.
They called this first commission the Human Rights Committee in the National Assembly and they agreed to make me the chairman because they knew I would fight very hard for the people, who did not understand human rights or this body.
The leader of the three parties—CPP, the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) and Son Sann’s party, now named the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP)—discussed the issue and negotiated how to move forward, as I was constantly going to raise the issue.
Finally they agreed to include a human rights committee in the Constitution, but it was not to be an independent one. They called this first commission the Human Rights Committee in the National Assembly and they agreed to make me the chairman because they knew I would fight very hard for the people, who did not understand human rights or this body. Many people, from my own party and others, also did not understand what this committee was for. I became chairman for five years, and worked very hard. I needed an advisor, and at that time the Asia Foundation and USAID supported my commission.
They provided funding and they also provided me with a human rights advisor, Mr Brad Adams, who is now with Human Rights Watch. He worked with me, and I learned a lot from him. At that time I could not speak any English, but the Asia Foundation provided me with training and a translator. The UN office also provided me with a legal advisor.
In this role, first I organised public forums, as I knew this was an important way to teach the public and to learn. This was the first series of forums set up in Cambodia. I went to the provinces, organised forums there, and encouraged people to speak up about their problems. The first issues were land disputes, land evictions, land grabbing. There were many land problems for the people at that time, and I asked members of the BDLP and FUNCINPEC to provide support.
I called the Minister, Mr Sor Kheng, and many provincial governors to solve the people’s land problems. I went to Kampong Cham to organise public forums, because there were many complaints there that the authorities were taking land from the people. I called the brother of Mr Hun Sen, Mr Hun Neng, and he and Mr Sor Kheng helped me to organise public forums. It was resolved that the land would be given back to the people, and afterwards I went to Prey Veng and did the same thing. Sometimes there were confrontations with the military, who were taking land from the people, so I went to the local military camp.
I wanted to discuss with them the issues of the people’s land, but it was not easy. They would not allow me in at first, but I explained that I just wanted to solve the problems, so we negotiated, I called the Governor and the Minister, and finally the people won.
At that time, too, we discovered there were illegal prisoners being held in Battambang—we called this Chher Khmao. The former Vietnamese Government had created secret prisons, where they arrested border people who tried to come in and tortured them. These people were held in tanks, which were very hot, and many people died. When I went to Battambang, in an area called Kompingpouy, I met with some military and when I asked where they worked, they told me about the secret prison. I asked what they did there, and they told me all about the hidden prisoners and the torture, that there were sixteen people there and many had died.
When I returned to Phnom Penh I discussed this prison with my UN advisor and how to stop it. This was 1994, and I thought, how can I solve this problem? If I talked to the government, I did not think they would want to know about it.
So I wrote a letter to King Sihanouk, informing him about the problem, and he sent my letter to the Prime Minister. So the Prime Minister realised that I knew about this—both Prime Ministers Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Then I was advised by my colleague in the UN that now that Hun Sen knew I was aware of this situation, it was very dangerous for me to stay. He said they planned to do something, possibly kill me, on Khmer New Year Day in 1995, with a grenade attack or something similar. So it was suggested to me that I should leave, and I went to the United States for a while, until it was safe to return.
So I stayed in my role until 1998, when I finished that mandate, and then there was a new general election in 1998. My party, the BLDP, lost in the election, and despite demonstrations against the election results, the BLDP lost out. Finally the CPP, FUNCINPEC and Sam Rainsy’s party negotiated a result and agreed to join the National Assembly. But I lost my parliamentary immunity, and the Prime Minister announced on TV, to the people, that I would be arrested on the 24 September 1998.
When I heard this I sought help from the UN and the US, and they provided refuge for me in the US Embassy in Phnom Penh for fifty days. Finally the situation was resolved, with the involvement of the US Government in negotiations with the Cambodian Government, with the CPP and FUNCINPEC. I was able to go free after Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh agreed to release me but on condition that I did not undertake a range of activities, especially political activities.
My response was no, I must continue my activities. But the second choice put to me was that if I wanted to do this, then I must join FUNCINPEC. So I decided to join FUNCINPEC, and in 1999 I became the deputy secretary-general of the party, and I asked the party to propose me as a member of the Senate, and also the chairman of the Human Rights Committee—I said, I must be involved with this.
You can't ask that the leaders of Cambodia do better unless they are guided by the people at the grassroots level. For me, everything starts at the grassroots level, and then we can influence the politicians.
When I joined FUNCINPEC, working in the Senate, I became the chairman of the Senate Committee from 1999 until 2002. My mandate finished in 2003, and at that time I decided I could not stay with the FUNCINPEC because the party did not allow me to advocate, to continue to do my work in human rights. They said that if I did, they would have a big problem with the CPP, which was their coalition partner. So I decided I could not stay and I resigned. In 2002 I resigned from the Senate, the chairmanship of the Human Rights Committee, and FUNCINPEC, and I decided to establish the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).
My goal in founding CCHR in 2002 was that I wanted the people to understand and learn about human rights, and the value of the human being—this was my key objective. I believed that if the people didn’t understand the value of human rights and of the human being, I felt we could not achieve change in society. Powerful people who have the money and influence have all the power, the people have none unless they learn about human rights.
So I began public forums again, which I had done before but I had not been able to do enough of this when I was in politics, so I established CCHR and put forward proposals for funding to USAID about the need for this agency. My platform involved issues of land disputes and the need to inform the public, and they provided a budget.
There are many big issues for Cambodia, and they must begin with the people. It is crucial that we start with the people, at the grassroots level. You can’t ask that the leaders of Cambodia do better unless they are guided by the people at the grassroots level. For me, everything starts at the grassroots level, and then we can influence the politicians.
I travelled a great deal around the country, establishing public forums to educate the people on human rights, and the people started to wake up. Our CCHR radio station was very important in this process; the people had never had the opportunity to speak out, and suddenly we were able to provide the radio. Every day I spoke on CCHR radio, and it was very new for the people; previously they had heard from the monks about Buddhist theory, but when they heard me talk about human rights they began to listen to our radio station a great deal to learn about this subject.
The government arrested me in 2005 when I organised Human Rights Day on 10 December. We organised this event together with other NGOs in the stadium. In the CCHR office we prepared many banners, we called them the ‘yellow banners’ and we appealed through our radio to all those members of the public who wanted to express their opinion, to come to our office and write their views on the banners. Every day people came, thousands of people, and most of them criticised the government, in particular they criticised the Prime Minister. When 10 December arrived, we assembled these banners but the government knew about them, took photos and advised the police, informed Hun Sen, and I was arrested on the grounds of incitement of unrest, and sent to jail.
I was in jail for about seventeen days and it was not a good experience, but people there respected me, even the guards, the police and the other prisoners. I think the government was also aware that the international community was following my situation, and were careful about how I was treated. I was visited in jail by many people, including international representatives such as the Swedish Minister, and they all expressed their concern about what had happened.
My staff, especially Ou Virak, organized petitions requesting my release, and that of my colleague Pa Nguon Teang, who was arrested with me. Finally after these support efforts the US assistant secretary of state, Mr Christopher Hill, flew to Cambodia, met with Prime Minister Hun Sen and discussed my situation with him. After this, I was released.
After my release in 2006 I felt again that if I stayed working within an NGO I could not bring about real changes in the country. I felt that the people could not achieve change, achieve power without political support, so I decided again to go into politics and establish a new party, the Human Rights Party. I felt there was much education and awareness raising to be done, and I could do this better if I went into politics again. I considered joining with the Sam Rainsy Party, but their views were not aligned with mine at that time, so I decided to set up a new party.
I feel that I have died many times, but my spirit, my struggle for human rights remains - I'm still alive and this is what keeps me going.
So I established this new Human Rights Party in 2007, we contested the election in 2008, and we won three seats in the parliament. But it was difficult to progress further, and finally in 2012 I decided that it would be better to join with Sam Rainsy’s party. So at that stage we joined together to make a stronger party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Gradually FUNCINPEC had lost power and credibility, since 1993. In the view of the people, the party showed no leadership, and the opposition became very fragmented. The opposition had divided into many groups and parties, and unless we got together, we could not win.
This was why I decided to join together with the Sam Rainsy Party— people wanted to see a united opposition and they were excited by what we could do, especially young people. It was clear that people wanted us to be united.
In my view, the election of 2013 was not free and fair—if it had been we would certainly have won, but the NEC (National Election Committee) declared what they wanted to declare, and accordingly we did not win.
I feel that after 1993 there was some progress in human rights, but now I think we are going backwards. Now CNRP has a very much smaller space to work in, and it is the same for NGOs. The government uses the court to prosecute people, and the court is not independent—it is part of the executive—and this is a very bad situation for civil society: there is no justice, no human rights.
We still have many issues in areas like land disputes—many cases are not solved. We have better monitoring because of social media, which is very active in Cambodia. But in terms of political rights, things are very bad. The biggest problem we have is the Prime Minister, Hun Sen—he still wants the power, he wants power with no limit, for him it is win or lose, he is determined to stay in power.
His rhetoric now is to threaten war, using the military to alarm people. The government uses the law to intimidate people—it is very bad. Over my twenty years in public life here there have been many serious impacts for me and my family. Sometimes we have had to leave the country, and many times my family has been threatened. My wife has been alone in the house, with 200 people outside and the police—a very frightening situation. Her car has been shot at. During the 2013 election, the military stopped my car, and we were followed continually.
I feel that I have died many times, but my spirit, my struggle for human rights remains—I’m still alive and this is what keeps me going. If the CNRP wins the election, we will work to establish a real democratic system for the country. If the country does not have a democratic system, we have no way of going forward. This means we must set up truly democratic institutions, with checks and balances for the executive and the judiciary, which must be independent. If we do not reform this, we cannot go forward. And as part of this reform, we need to make the military and the civil service independent. At present they are partisan, not independent, and they must be neutral.
It will be a very big task. I believe, however, that people within the civil service, the military and the judiciary want this too; at the moment they are very strictly controlled but I think they want to change and we will try to reform this first of all.
What is my hope for Cambodia for the future? I think Cambodia has great resources - natural resources and human resources. [...] If we manage our resources well, Cambodia will have a very bright future.
We will have to go step by step, we can’t achieve this quickly, but we can make a start. First, we need stability, without stability we cannot do any of this. Most of all, we need the ruling party to agree to transfer power. It is also very important that we work to reduce poverty. Eighty per cent of Cambodians are farmers, and they are living the same way they lived 100 years ago. They are very poor, with small land holdings, they have many children, and we must find a way to give them other options, new jobs.
We can work to help them at the local level, the commune level. We need to establish how many are very poor, and work out ways to help them. We can encourage, work with NGOs who will provide support and assistance, loans, so they can become self-sustaining.
We can contract with NGOs to establish plans for increasing the wealth of individual farmers, which will involve increasing their agricultural output, diversifying into other areas like fishing, and finding new jobs for the young people. We can also encourage investment from big companies, and if we do this transparently, with the rule of law, they will come.
Chinese investment is very big here. Many big Chinese investors are very keen to be involved here, but we need transparency and we need to discuss with them how they will benefit the people. It is very important that we fight corruption in regard to Chinese investment, and I have already discussed this with the Chinese ambassador. If our people feel the Chinese are trying to take something from them, they will not be liked. So it is very important that we have transparency in dealings with them.
What is my hope for Cambodia for the future? I think Cambodia has great resources—natural resources and human resources. Young people are our great hope for the future, and we need to guide and encourage them. If we manage our resources well, Cambodia will have a very bright future.
Kem Sokha, August 2017
[Footnote: This is an edited extract from Seeking Justice in Cambodia edited by Sue Coffey, out November 2018 from Melbourne University Press (MUP)]