PHNOM PENH AND KAMPONG THOM, Cambodia — Sok Chan Thai was riding on a motorcycle in Kampong Thom along a street she had used many times before. She was heading to the local government administrative office to deal with an issue with her business license.
The 37-year-old mother of two children runs a small water purification business that sells water to residents of Kampong Thom province’s Baray district. She remembers riding her motorcycle but not much else. She said she went blank on that ride. Something else was occupying her mind.
“Having many thoughts running back and forth [in my mind], I got lost that day in Kampong Thom province,” she said.
Sok Chan Thai’s husband was arrested in September for allegedly aiding exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy in a purported coup plot. She requested that her husband’s name be kept out of the story for fear of it affecting his legal case.
Sam Rainsy had announced in August that he would return to Cambodia in November, a plan that fell flat, partly on account of neighboring countries blocking his transit. The government saw in this announcement an attempted coup plot, and proceeded to arrest more than 80 opposition activists or members for allegedly aiding Sam Rainsy.
Sok Cha Thai’s husband was one of the people arrested. Her husband’s alleged crime was posting a video to his Facebook profile describing the planned return of former opposition leader Sam Rainsy on November 9.
After having spent more than a month in prison, Sok Chan Thai’s husband was released on bail in November, after Prime Minister Hun Sen said the government was being compassionate to these people, adding that they had been misled by Sam Rainsy to plot a coup.
While her husband had been released, the repercussions of his arrest persisted.
Families of opposition activists and members often say releasing their loved ones on bail gave them only a little respite, because there was a lot of stress attached to being charged indefinitely and the anxiety of potentially being arrested again.
While they have had to face personal embarrassment among their community, the effect it has on their livelihoods is sometimes worse.
Shortly after the arrest, Sok Chan Thai’s water purification business was having trouble renewing its business license, an issue she had not faced for three years since she started the small business.
Not only did this affect her daily income, which was used to pay for her children’s schooling, it was making it impossible to pay back a bank loan.
Additionally, the six workers she had employed now refused to work for her business. She has had to ask other family members to help out.
“So, if [the business] closes, what will I rely on?” Sok Chan Thai said. “What about the bank loan? Where could I get the money to pay it back?”
While it is hard for the families to cope with the politically-charged allegations against their loved ones, it takes a different toll on the accused.
Yu Chantheany, 25, was in some ways the face associated with the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party. She wasn’t an elected party official nor was she a senior office-bearer.
But every evening, Cambodians would see Yu Chantheany on Facebook reading the news on Sam Rainsy’s social media page. The party had struggled to get its own television station and used the Facebook broadcasts to deliver news to Cambodians.
The last broadcast with Yu Chantheany was on November 16, 2017, the day the CNRP was dissolved by the Cambodian Supreme Court. The high court additionally banned 118 of its senior members from the political arena.
The 25-year-old Phnom Penh resident seems to have stayed low since then. But a trip to Malaysia in August changed that. Yu Chantheany said she was excited to meet Sam Rainsy in Malaysia, where the opposition leader was attending a rally, while also meeting colleagues to plan the November return to Cambodia.
Little did she know that the one-off meeting would upend her life back in Cambodia. On returning to Phnom Penh, she was arrested on September 13 and sent to Prey Sar prison. After spending a little more than two months in prison, she was released on bail in November 15.
VOA Khmer met with Yu Chantheany at a café in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district last month. The former news reader ordered a coffee, but barely touched it during the meeting.
She said the experience of being in prison was weighing her down. She grasped at a single sheet of paper, the document that released her on bail.
During the course of her appearance on Sam Rainsy’s Facebook page, she must have read stories about Cambodian prisons before, but she had herself experienced being in a cell with around 100 other inmates.
“I was shocked when I arrived at [prison],” Yu Chantheany said. “But I tried to control my feelings, I didn’t allow myself to feel low.”
She said she drew some strength from her parents’ experiences during the Khmer Rouge, always reminding herself that she would be released shortly. But, those two months in prison have left her in a state of shock and fear.
“After I was arrested, I thought that I would be released tomorrow,” she said. “Perhaps it will be okay because I didn’t commit any crime.”
“I reminded myself that ‘tomorrow, I would be released and it will be fine,’” she added. “Then I could return to work, but I was proven wrong.”
Yu Chantheany used to work at Advanced Bank of Asia, but lost her job after she was arrested. And her being on bail, especially court-mandated restrictions on her movements made it hard for her to get back her job. She has to report to a local police station every month and cannot travel overseas.
The biggest challenge now, she said, was finding a new job. And it was not easy to be accused of plotting to overthrow the government – a charge that comes with a prison sentence of 20 years – and to find a job at the same time, she added.
“I went back to my workplace, but they can’t accept me,” she said. “But their reason is right because the charge has tied me up. [Made it hard] to look for a job.”
Over the years, political prisoners, those released on bail, have similarly said it was difficult to return to their lives because the charges were not only a deterrent to prospective employers, but the charges also increased the stress on their personal relationships.
Political commentator Meas Nee said the recent political tensions between the Cambodian People’s Party and CNRP had resulted in many of these arrests; people had unfortunately been caught in the crossfire.
And to make things worse, he said, the dropping of their charges rested on external factors, like whether the ‘Everything But Arms’ trade scheme will be suspended by the European Union, rather than on the merits of the evidence against them.
“These cases, of first arrest and then release the activists, doesn’t depend on the law but it depends on political developments,” he said.
For some, these arrests have sadly become routine. Sok Sreynich is a new mother and the wife of activist Kong Raiya.
Kong Raiya was arrested a day before a July memorial service for slain political commentator Kem Ley. Kong Raiya had posted on Facebook that he was selling shirts with the image of Kem Ley, as well as offered the phone number for a taxi driver, who could bring people to Phnom Penh for the memorial service.
But he was arrested on July 9, 2019, for on charge of “incitement to commit a felony” – a catchall charge often used by the authorities to silence dissenting opinions. This was not Raiya’s first time in prison.
In August 2015, he was arrested and sentenced to 18 months in prison under similar charges for another Facebook post. Rights groups have called his arrests baseless and an impingement on his right to peaceful expression.
Kong Raiya was released last Friday, bringing some relief for Sok Sreynich. The last four months had been very hard for her, she said, be it financially or psychologically.
“It has been very hard for me because I am responsible for everything including responsibilities at home, paying for utilities, food and my husband,” she said.
Kong Raiya’s release had lifted some of this burden, but as long as the charges persisted, it was going to be hard to return to their normal lives.
Sok Sreynich classifies the experience of being jailed and released on bail as “merely half freedom.” Additionally, it adds an extra level of stress and strain on familial relationships, she said.
“If he’s still under supervision of the court system and authorities, he will not be able to work with peaceful mind,” she said.
“It also has an effect on our daily lives because of the court can summon him at any occasion.”