Kem Sokha seen at his house in Phnom Penh after meeting U.S. ambassador W. Patrick Murphy on Nov. 11. 2019 (Simon Roughneen)Kem Sokha seen at his house in Phnom Penh after meeting U.S. ambassador W. Patrick Murphy on Nov. 11. 2019 (Simon Roughneen)


Kem Sokha seen at his house in Phnom Penh after meeting U.S. ambassador W. Patrick Murphy on Nov. 11. 2019 (Simon Roughneen)
Kem Sokha seen at his house in Phnom Penh after meeting U.S. ambassador W. Patrick Murphy on Nov. 11. 2019 (Simon Roughneen)

PHNOM PENH — Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha and U.S. ambassador W. Patrick Murphy did not say much after their one-hour meeting on Nov. 11, a day after a Cambodian court allowed Sokha, who is accused of treason, to be freed from house arrest.

Sokha, 66, remains barred from political activities, so he was left to apologize to journalists at the end of the meeting, saying, “I’m not sure what political language is defined as, so I’m not sure what I can say and what I cannot.”

But Ambassador Murphy called for the lifting of the charges against Sokha and implored the Cambodian government to “find a way to restore Mr. Kem Sokha’s entire freedoms and liberties.”

Sokha was arrested two years ago during a Cambodian government crackdown on the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was later banned, before the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all 125 seats going during the 2018 national elections, turning Cambodia into a de facto single-party state.

The CNRP came close to unseating the CPP in 2013 elections and again ran the ruling party close in local elections held in mid-2017, around a year before the due date for the 2018 national elections and just weeks before the crackdown eventually came about.

Sokha was accused of conspiring with the U.S. to unseat Prime Minister Hun Sen’s pro-China regime, which, though Hun Sen has expressed admiration for President Donald Trump, has sparked alarm in U.S. defense circles over allegations that China, by far the biggest investment source in Cambodia, was building a naval base on Cambodia’s Gulf of Thailand coast.

Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen at the ASEAN and related summits in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 21 2015 (Simon Roughneen)

Sokha spent a year in jail, and then another year under house arrest in Phnom Penh prior to a court ruling on Nov. 10 allowing him to leave his house but not Cambodia. The weekend ruling came a day after fellow opposition leader Sam Rainsy was due back in Cambodia after four years of self-exile from charges of corruption and defamation which he dismissed as politicized.

Rainsy said in August he would cross into Cambodia from Thailand on Nov. 9, Cambodia’s independence day, at the head of thousands of Cambodian emigrants who work in Thailand.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said in turn his government, which is dominated by factions that seized power in a 2014 army putsch, would not grant Rainsy passage should he ever make it as far as Bangkok.

A trick

More recently Rainsy dismissed the relaxation of Sokha’s detention conditions as “a trick” — amid speculation Hun Sen’s government made the move to capitalize on apparent factionalism among opposition members, with the now-defunct CNRP an amalgam of two separate opposition parties previously led by Rainsy and Sokha.

Lee Morgenbesser, senior lecturer at Griffith University in Australia, said the move could be a Hun Sen gambit to “dilute the CNRP’s public leadership by releasing Sokha as a competitor to Rainsy.”

Cambodian authorities have repeatedly mocked Rainsy’s self-exile, daring him over the years to return to the kingdom, before tossing another apparent contradiction into the mix over the weekend when a government minister said Rainsy was not banned from returning at all. Pro-government media in Cambodia have played up the contrast between Sokha’s detention and Rainsy’s flight to Paris.

Morgenbesser, who studies authoritarian regimes in Asia and Africa, added that “the existing factionalism within the party suggests tension and disagreement is sure to surface at an opportune time for Hun Sen.”

Rainsy’s return plans, which were widely regarded as far-fetched, have come to nothing for now. He was barred from boarding a flight to Bangkok from Paris last week. Rainsy then diverted to Malaysia, where the lawmaker daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s prime-minister-in-waiting and himself a long-time political prisoner, has apparently invited him to the country’s parliament.

By heading for Malaysia, Rainsy joined several other opposition leaders in a country itself now governed by former opposition parties after a shock election win, also last year, over the National Front coalition, which had ruled Malaysia for six decades.

Opposition leaders Kem Sokha and the now-exiled Sam Rainsy at a party rally in Phnom Penh in Sept. 2013 (Simon Roughneen)

However, Rainsy’s hopes of leading a similar unseating of Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, look forlorn. A revised plan or schedule for his next attempt to return to Cambodia has not yet been unveiled. Meanwhile, Cambodia’s government is busy lobbying counterparts in the region, most of which do not share the same underdog inclinations as Malaysia’s, to prevent the opposition leader from proceeding to Phnom Penh.

Not only has Cambodia’s government threatened airlines with sanctions should they dare carry Rainsy on a flight bound for Cambodia, its ambassador to Indonesia last week interrupted a press conference in Jakarta given by Mu Sochua, a colleague of Rainsy’s. The ambassador not only told an Australian reporter to “shut up” but relayed Hun Sen’s demands that Indonesia, a country ten times Cambodia’s size and often regarded as sensitive to slights from overseas, deport Sochua.

Dozens arrested

The Cambodian government had for weeks denounced Rainsy’s plans as a coup attempt, arresting dozens of his supporters in recent weeks and imposing restrictions on land border crossings with Thailand,

“The rapid increase in numbers of arrests and serious charges filed against CNRP members is alarming,” Rhona Smith, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, stated on Nov. 8.

The relaxation of Sokha’s confinement comes as the European Union weighs up removing Cambodia’s free trade access to the giant 28 country market, a vital economic lifeline for hundreds of thousands of workers in garment and footwear factories ringing the capital Phnom Penh.

The European Commission, a would-be E.U. executive, described the move as “a first step in the right direction” but gave no indication how allowing Sokha to meet ambassadors might affect the possible sanctioning of Cambodia’s vital trade with the bloc, which makes up around 40 percent of total exports, mostly shoes and clothes.

According to Morgenbesser, allowing Sokha to meet the ambassadors is meant to “partially appease European demands for liberalization in order to prevent suspension (of the trade privileges).”

Though the charges against Sokha remain in place, along with the threat of a 30-year jail term, daughter Kem Monovithya, another senior opposition politician, said that the hope is her father will make a public appearance “soon.”

Boat races marking Cambodia’s Water Festival, as seen from the riverside in Phnom Penh on Nov. 12. (Simon Roughneen)

The ruling came at the start of Cambodia’s annual Water Festival, a half-week holiday marked by boat races in capital Phnom Penh. Usually the festival sees the capital thronged with tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of visitors from the countryside. Most observers say that numbers are down this year, possibly due to concerns about security in the light of Rainsy’s attempted return and the government’s deployment of 20,000 security personnel, many of them heavily-armed, around the streets of the capital.

“It’s really quiet this year, most years you’d barely be able to move outside on the streets with the amount of people,” said an Australian restaurateur in Phnom Penh, who asked not to be named.

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