By Conor Cronin —
Phnom Penh’s municipal court on September 9 convicted Cambodia’s deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha for refusing to appear in court for questioning over an affair with his hairdresser. Sokha, the acting head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was convicted in absentia because he has been holed up in the CNRP headquarters since May 2016, when police tried to storm the building to arrest him in the politically motivated case.
The sentence, just five months in jail and a $200 fine, is relatively light, but the impact is not—Sokha will be ineligible to run in Cambodia’s upcoming 2018 parliamentary elections. It is the latest step in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s no-holds-barred fight to secure the elections and his claim to legitimacy, and it could set off a downward spiral of protest and violent backlash.
Since nearly losing the 2013 parliamentary elections even after allegedly rigging the vote, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has grown increasingly fearful of opposition support. Protests over the election results, and larger frustration with the CPP that has dominated Cambodia for more than 30 years, saw backers of the CNRP and other opposition parties encamped in Phnom Penh for almost a year. The protests ended only when the CPP agreed to electoral reforms and a power-sharing arrangement that saw Sokha become first vice president in the National Assembly as part of a “culture of dialogue” intended to bring renewed cooperation to Cambodian politics.
The culture of dialogue was short-lived, if it ever truly existed. In short order, the CPP began to use the judiciary—deemed one of the most corrupt in the world by Transparency International—as a weapon against the CNRP, pursuing frivolous cases against lawmakers for defamation or “treasonous” Facebook posts questioning the legitimacy of the border with Vietnam. The lawmakers’ parliamentary immunity that should have protected them from arrest was ignored outright and stripped later by a Senate vote.
Sam Rainsy and Sokha, as president and vice president of the CNRP, have been frequent targets of Hun Sen’s ire. Rainsy, a long-time gadfly to the CPP, has been driven into self-imposed exile repeatedly over the last two decades by lawsuits from the ruling party. In December 2015, a court issued an arrest warrant for Rainsy in connection with a seven-year old defamation case. Rainsy was in South Korea at the time and has been unable to return for fear of imprisonment.
The campaign against Sokha has been even more brazen. A string of CPP-encouraged demonstrations that called for Sokha to be removed from his leadership post in the National Assembly — including one demonstration where a mob led by members of the prime minister’s bodyguard unit dragged two opposition lawmakers from their cars and savagely beat them — culminated in an assembly vote to strip Sokha of his position under legally questionable premises.
Removing Sokha from his post was not enough, however. Prosecutors brought prostitution charges against Sokha based on a recording of a conversation between him and his alleged mistress that anonymously surfaced on the woman’s Facebook page. When Sokha refused to come in for questioning, citing his parliamentary immunity, the court ruled his refusal an in flagrante delicto (meaning “caught in the act of committing an offense”) violation of the law — a loophole that would nullify his immunity.
Leading up to the trial, Hun Sen declared Sokha would go to prison “forever.” CNRP leaders called for a rally at their headquarters to prevent Sokha’s arrest. Authorities set up checkpoints around Phnom Penh to block supporters from entering the city, but ultimately tried him in absentia and convicted him in just an hour.
In the days following the conviction, CNRP leaders have said the relentless persecution may leave them no alternative but nationwide demonstrations. A return to the unrest of 2013-2014 would be anathema to Hun Sen. The prime minister is eager to paint the one-party rule of the CPP as legitimate, and public dissention undermines that. By extension, directly stealing the election would too easily discredit the government. By using the judiciary to “legally” clear the field ahead of elections, no vote-rigging would be necessary to defeat the ineligible opposition, allowing the CPP to claim a clean election.
Challenging the CPP’s narrative of legitimacy ensures the wrath of the prime minister. A July 7 report by watchdog group Global Witness detailed the extensive and illegal holdings of the Hun family across the private sector, a claim that the family denied vehemently across social media but without offering evidence to the contrary.
Political analyst Kem Ley highlighted Global Witness’s findings in a radio interview, only to be murdered two days later in broad daylight at a gas station. Authorities quickly arrested the killer, who gave a flimsy motivation for the murder, and many accused the government of silencing a prominent critic. Public outrage over the murder was palpable as hundreds of thousands jammed the streets to join his funeral procession.
The outpouring of grief for Kem Ley was a wake-up call to the CPP. Another such enormous demonstration with CNRP leaders at its head would upset the image of the CPP as popularly elected rulers. Hun Sen has forbidden pro-CNRP protests, warning that armed forces are prepared to crack down on any illegal demonstrations, and has bolstered his 3,000-strong private bodyguard corps.
In his travels while in exile, Rainsy has called on foreign governments to put pressure on the CPP. In June, the European Parliament threatened to withhold aid funding until human rights improved. The U.S. State Department’s foreign assistance budget for 2017 similarly restricts aid to Cambodia based on harassment and persecution of civil society. But financial threats are inconsequential against Cambodia in the face of generous assistance from China, which does not question the CPP’s human rights record. Cutting off aid funding from the west will make Cambodia more dependent on China and likely impact civil society groups, while not resolving the political turmoil or punishing the perpetrators.
Instead, pressure on the CPP to respect Cambodian democracy should challenge the legitimacy of the upcoming elections and the government that abuses them. The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee has been persistent in its criticism of the CPP, with representatives from both parties sponsoring a resolution that censures Hun Sen’s government.
State Department criticism — as demonstrated during Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski’s visit in July — should come more frequently and more clearly as the CPP continues its crackdown. And if elections are held without proper reform, further reputational damage — which might include visa restrictions against leaders of the CPP and their families — could impact the ruling party in ways China cannot offset.