Cambodian lawmakers flee crackdown

AFP, BANGKOK

Sat, Oct 07, 2017 - Page 6

Two late-night text messages in an hour, one from sources in the military, the other from the cops, warned Cambodian opposition politician Mu Sochua her arrest was at hand.

The next day she bolted from the country, joining half of the kingdom’s opposition lawmakers in self-exile. They have fled since Sept. 3, when their party chief was arrested in the middle of the night by hundreds of officers, a dramatic escalation of a purge of rivals to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest-serving leaders.

“I don’t intend to be captured,” Mu Sochua told reporters from Bangkok, where she arrived on Tuesday and is to stay before heading to Europe. “I don’t intend to sit and wait for a kangaroo court to give us a trial that is a total joke.”

Her anxiety is well-founded.

Through a mix of threats, harassment and legal entanglements, Hun Sen’s government has been clearing out critics ahead of key elections that are to test his 32-year run.

The odds are looking good for the 65-year-old, a master of manipulating the country’s malleable democratic institutions in his favor.

The main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party is in tatters, with more than 20 lawmakers skipping abroad in the past month after their stand-in leader Kem Sokha was locked up in a remote prison on dubious treason charges.

His arrest comes months after a series of legal convictions and new laws forced the party’s long-time front man Sam Rainsy to step down.

Many civil society groups railing against corruption and repression have also been shut down or sidelined by court cases.

Outspoken media have found the cost of criticism is a crippling tax bill.

Deputy party leader Mu Sochua is no stranger to intimidation.

The 63-year-old is a veteran of an opposition movement that has spent most of its time dodging Hun Sen’s machinations.

However, the latest crackdown feels different, she said.

“For the first time I felt unsafe, and politically speaking, this is the first time I felt we no longer have the possibility of a dialogue,” Mu Sochua told reporters, adding that police have been following the movements of her party’s members around the country.

“I didn’t want another leader caught, another voice silenced. That left me with one choice only, which is to leave,” she said.

Despite the roadblocks set up against it, the Cambodian National Rescue Party faired well in recent elections, buoyed by growing frustration over graft and inequality.

However, the recent exodus of lawmakers abroad is unprecedented and severely cramps the party’s ability to mount an effective campaign in next year’s poll.

At this rate, a boycott of next summer’s national vote is on the table if Kem Sokha remains in jail and repression of the media and civil society continues, Mu Sochua said.

She and others in exile will now travel the West to whip up global pressure on Hun Sen and his cronies from abroad.

However, whether Western democracies — once a source of vital aid for the impoverished country — can still wield influence over the prime minister is in question.

China has steadily pulled Hun Sen into its orbit in recent years by lavishing the leader with aid and investment free of pressure to safeguard human rights.

That has relieved the autocrat from needing to at least maintain the semblance of a functioning democracy and free press.