Two former opposition officials have fled Cambodia for the United States to avoid persecution as the government prepares to amend the law on political parties to allow more than 100 banned Cambodia National Rescue Party officials to return to political life.
Long Ry, a former lawmaker, and his wife, Chea Sokuntheany, secretary of the CNRP’s women’s movement, arrived at Lowell, MA, on Saturday after living in exile in Thailand for more than a year.
Both were among 118 CNRP officials who were banned from political life in a Supreme Court ruling in November 2017 that also saw the CNRP dissolved. Kem Sokha, the party’s president, was also jailed on treason charges and later placed under house arrest.
“When the party was dissolved on paper, there were concerns, fears, and persuasion, and some were ordered to show up in court. Therefore, we escaped to stay in Thailand for a while,” Ry told VOA Khmer in a phone interview on Sunday. “Some members of the municipal, provincial, district, and commune councils are staying there while some have returned home.”
“Because we stayed there for a long time, our visa had expired and some of us have continued to stay illegally without a visa,” he said. “Some have to live in hiding because we came in illegally… Some people are sick and find it hard to get into a hospital because we don’t have a passport. Our life was very difficult.”
Kuntheany said she was able to travel between Thailand and Cambodia, but because her passport was blacklisted she was held up for hours at the border and decided to remain in Thailand.
“I’ve lived in Thailand for more than a year,” she said. “I lived in fear. First, there was fear in Thailand and fear in Cambodia, where they monitored my every move.”
More than two hundred party loyalists left the country after the CNRP’s dissolution. Some have since returned to Cambodia due to difficulties they faced abroad and some are not seen as being targets for the government.
“Those in Cambodia cannot do any political activity because of fear, not just the 118 banned officials,” Kuntheany said. “They cannot meet up in groups of more than three people.”
Some party officials, who are living in exile in the US, France, Canada and Australia, have been lobbying for international intervention. Overseas supporters met at a conference in early December in Atlanta, GA, to invite the party’s co-founder and former president Sam Rainsy to temporarily lead the party while Sokha remains under house arrest.
The Cambodian People’s Party-controlled Senate passed the amended law on political parties on Tuesday to pave the way for the former opposition officials to return to political life.
“I’m not guilty [of anything] so I won’t beg for a pardon to restore my rights,” Ry said. “Our goal now is to demand the release of our president Kem Sokha and restore the rights of 5,007 commune councilors.”