Sat, Jan 18, 2020 - Page 9 News List

Cambodia’s trial of Kem Sokha is criminalizing democracy

By Sam Rainsy

The sham trial of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha is underway in Phnom Penh. How the international community responds would send a powerful signal to Cambodian Prime Minster Hun Sen, the world’s longest-serving, about his ability to continue to trample on the nation’s democracy and its people’s human rights.

After Kem Sokha and I founded the CNRP, Cambodia’s first united democratic opposition party, in 2012, we quickly gained strong public support.

In both the 2013 general election and the 2017 communal elections, the CNRP won nearly half the vote, despite systematic structural bias in favor of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Terrified by the obvious threat the CNRP posed to his rule, Hun Sen sought a pretext to crush us. So, in 2017, when I was still CNRP leader, he proposed an amendment that would bar “convicted criminals” from leading a political party — a clear bid to use the string of politically motivated convictions on my record to discredit the CNRP.

To prevent him from succeeding, I resigned as CNRP leader in February 2017, leaving Kem Sokha, with his clean record, in charge.

That did not stop Hun Sen.

Seven months after my resignation, his government simply fabricated treason charges against Kem Sokha. Within two months, the CNRP was dissolved by a judiciary loyal to Hun Sen. (In 2018 and last year, Cambodia ranked second to last in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index.)

The fact that a two-year investigation into Kem Sokha has not produced a shred of evidence against him is, apparently, irrelevant, but Hun Sen knows that a party is more than its official status — it is its people. So instead of, say, addressing the abject poverty in which a huge share of Cambodians live, he has channeled his energy and the government’s resources toward keeping Kem Sokha and me apart, and pressuring CNRP supporters to defect.

Today, Kem Sokha is forbidden from leaving the country, and I am barred from entering it.

When I last tried to do so in November last year, Hun Sen issued a directive prohibiting commercial airlines that serve Cambodia from allowing me to board and threatening “serious consequences” for anyone that defied the ban. Moreover, he convinced Thailand to prevent me from flying to Bangkok, to stop me from crossing into Cambodia by land.

Hun Sen’s desperation to keep me out of Cambodia betrays the weakness of his position. I have challenged him many times to try me instead of Kem Sokha, but he fears the national and international response to my arrest and trial, as much as he fears the support I would receive if he allowed me to move freely in Cambodia.

More than 90 percent of the 5,007 CNRP local councilors elected in 2017 relinquished their positions rather than defect to the CPP. Likewise, more than 90 percent of the 118 leading CNRP figures whom Hun Sen’s regime banned from politics have refused to trade their political allegiance for the reinstatement of their political rights.

Ordinary CNRP supporters — who comprise nearly half of Cambodia’s population — also remain loyal, despite the threat of violent harassment, arrest or forced exile.

In the 2018 national election, they refused to endorse any of the CPP-approved “opposition” parties. They were not about to let the CPP pretend that the national assembly — filled exclusively with CPP members — was in any way fair or representative.

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