Outspoken political analyst Kim Sok has agreed to return to Cambodia from self-imposed exile to lead what he has termed “mass demonstrations for social justice” if Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers on a promise to send an airplane to bring him home.
On Sunday, while speaking at the opening of an entertainment complex outside of the capital Phnom Penh, Hun Sen dared Kim Sok to return home from Finland, where he was offered asylum in October 2018.
“This contemptible guy [recently] called for people from all walks of life, including workers and farmers, to stage a protest for change,” he said.
“Go ahead and come! I will send an airplane to take you [to Cambodia,] and when you arrive, I won’t do anything to you—I’ll let you lead the demonstration. Will you dare [to come]?”
Cambodia’s government has faced growing criticism over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, its failure to address human rights and democracy issues that prompted the EU to level tough trade sanctions last week, and most recently for allegedly allowing Vietnam to encroach on Cambodian territory along the two countries’ shared border.
Kim Sok has joined the chorus of voices slamming Hun Sen’s leadership.
The commentator was jailed on Feb. 17, 2017, after Hun Sen accused him of implying that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had orchestrated the 2016 murder of popular political pundit Kem Ley.
Just days before he was gunned down on July 10, 2016, Kem Ley had discussed on an RFA Khmer Service call-in show a report by London-based Global Witness detailing the extent of the wealth of the family of Hun Sen.
Kim Sok was released on Aug. 17, 2018 but fled to neighboring Thailand, where he spent weeks in hiding after the prime minister issued an order to have him re-arrested. He was offered asylum in Finland and relocated there in October that year.
Hun Sen said Sunday he had “let [Kim Sok] leave” Cambodia two years ago.
“He would not have been able to leave the country if I had wanted to arrest him because my people had followed him to the [Thai] border and they asked me to order his arrest,” he said. “I said, ‘Just let him go because he was already imprisoned once.’”
Kim Sok responded Monday by urging Hun Sen to honor his promise.
“I am prepared to make sacrifices in order to lead a popular mass demonstration in Cambodia if Hun Sen genuinely sends an airplane to take me to Phnom Penh, as he said,” the commentator told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“I will take the lead in the protest to struggle for justice for our people. I urge all government civil servants, workers, and social activists to join hands and stand up to fight for our poor country. I know a majority of government civil servants do not like the CPP, so it is time to stage protests everywhere.”
Kim Sok also called on the acting president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Sam Rainsy, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Paris, France since 2015, and CNRP chief Kem Sokha, who is facing charges of “treason” for an alleged plot to topple the government, “to be prepared to lead the country, because their party was elected and half of the nation voted for them.”
The Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, two months after Kem Sokha’s arrest, for its role in opposition leader’s alleged scheme. The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Petition for party chief
The exchange between Hun Sen and Kim Sok came as Cambodia’s little-known opposition Khmer Win Party (KWP) called on the U.S. Embassy to intervene in the arrest of its president, Suong Sophorn, who was arrested on Aug. 14 and also charged with “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” following comments he made alleging that Vietnam had encroached on Cambodian territory.
KWP spokesperson Yin Yoeun told RFA his party had submitted a petition to the embassy on Sunday by an official who pledged to respond by Aug. 20. He said that he and another party official had been tailed by security forces who demanded to know the content of the petition.
“We will approach all embassies of nations that were signatories to the Paris Peace Agreement to help us because they helped bring about democracy to Cambodia,” he said, referring to the Paris Peace Accords of 1991, which ended civil war and established democratic elections in the country.
Suong Sophorn’s arrest came just two weeks after prominent union leader Rong Chhun was officially charged with “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” under Article 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code and jailed at Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh on Aug. 1.
The Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) president had been arrested a day earlier for claiming the government has allowed Vietnam to encroach on farmland along the border. His arrest has prompted near-daily protests in the capital by supporters demanding his release.
Earlier this month, the KWP notified Phnom Penh city officials that it planned to lead a protest on Aug. 16 to demand Rong Chhun’s release but was denied permission, prompting the party to release a statement calling the ban a violation of the freedom of expression, democratic principles, and Cambodian law.
Hours before his arrest, Suong Sophorn told RFA he intended to defy the ban and planned to issue a statement about the irregularities he discovered while visiting the border area, even if it meant being sent to jail.
Yin Yoeun said Monday that Suong Sophorn’s arrest was different than that of Rong Chhun because the former had spoken about the border as a politician.
“When a politician in a democratic country cannot speak out about the border issue, how can the people?” he questioned. “This is seriously affecting democracy in the country.”
Yin Yoeun told RFA the KWP maintains that Suong Sophorn is innocent of the charges against him and had not broken any laws. He said the party has no plans to announce a new leader to avoid dissolution but will suspend plans to visit the border with Vietnam and hold a demonstration in the capital as it focuses on seeking justice for Suong Sophorn.
RFA was unable to reach government spokesperson Phay Siphan for comment on Suong Sophorn’s case on Monday, but both he and Justice Ministry spokesperson Chhin Malin have said that petitioning foreign embassies will have no impact on Cambodian court decisions.
Warnings and threats
Hun Sen on Sunday had vowed to “arrest anyone, regardless of number, who speaks out about the border.”
Last week, police violently dispersed a protest outside of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court calling for Rong Chhun’s release and arrested six of the union leader’s youth supporters from the civil society group Khmer Thavarak.
Chhoeun Daravy and Hun Vannak were charged with “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest,” and “obstructing the authorities,” while the other four were released.
Khmer Thavarak member Keut Saray told RFA Monday that although the authorities are now closely watching the group’s activities, it will continue to demand justice for Chhoeun Daravy and Hun Vannak, including through social media statements.
Another group member, Van Chanthoeun, said he and others are now being monitored by authorities but will not give up the fight for their release.
National Police spokesperson Chhay Kimkhoeun and Phay Siphan could not be reach for comment on the charges facing Chhoeun Daravy and Hun Vannak, but the Justice Ministry’s Chhin Malin has warned that authorities would take “further legal action” if the youth group continued to hold protests.
The leader of the Young Commentator Group, Ly Srey Sroh, told RFA Monday that the government should provide a free space for its own people, particularly the youth, to fully exercise their rights.
“As part of the democracy building process, people must be brave enough to demand their rights, despite any moves by the authorities to ban or suppress them,” she said.
Political commentator Seng Sary said that the government is “too lazy to solve the people’s problems” and instead routinely issues warnings and threats “to frighten them.”
“The government likes to use [suppression] to achieve quick result, but such tactics create anger and rage inside the hearts of the people,” he said.
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