Beehive Radio director Mam Sonando (C) is hustled into a van to be taken to Prey Sar prison after being sentenced to a 20-year jail term, Monday, Oct.1, 2012. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post
Palace insiders have begun hinting that a royal amnesty for political prisoners may be forthcoming in homage to the passing of Cambodia’s beloved former monarch King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
Son Soubert, an adviser to King Norodom Sihamoni, yesterday hinted that the king would likely acquiesce to a plea for such an amnesty made by the late King Father’s former adviser Prince Thomico Sisowath late last week.
“I cannot talk on behalf of the king, but I’m sure on this case he would be willing to comply with that and willing to sign the amnesty,” he said, adding that all political prisoners should have a chance to pay their final respects to the King Father.
“I think that’s the feeling of everyone, that justice would be repaired, even the people who came and prayed for the King Father. I think there should be justice for everyone.”
As a constitutional monarch, the king could not issue a pardon or amnesty without the endorsement of the government, which Soubert said he called on to take such actions in respect of the late King Father.
Also citing respect for the monarchy, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said the likes of Thomico and Soubert should not opportunistically use Sihanouk’s death for their own political ends during the one-week period of morning, which ends on Wednesday.
“Those two people should be real Cambodians,” he said, adding the government would say nothing further on the issue until Wednesday.
Soubert also said the amnesty should be permanent and was “especially” important for the jailed outspoken government critic Mam Sonando and self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who were both close to the late King Father and should be able to pay their last respects.
Sonando, the owner of Beehive radio, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in October for charges related to his alleged involvement in a so-called secessionist plot, charges that have widely been condemned as spurious and politically motivated.
Rainsy, long a thorn in the side of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and leader of the newly formed Cambodian National Rescue Party, faces 14 years jail from charges ranging from defamation to forging public documents and racial incitement should he return from self-imposed exile in France.
Thomico said yesterday there wouldn’t been “any better chance than this” to free Sonando and pardon Rainsy than now.
These latest appeals for the pair’s release come amid speculation over what shape the reign of the until-now reserved Sihamoni will take now that his “god-king” father has passed away.
In contrast to his son, Sihanouk frequently divulged his often acerbic views on political figures, including his son Norodom Ranariddh, but also sought to act as a mediator in times of political strife.
In February, 2005, after Rainsy and several party colleagues had again fled from convictions into exile, Sihanouk proposed a five-point political solution to secure pardons, citing good Buddhist values.
Political experts yesterday were circumspect about the likelihood of Sihamoni riding the wave of public sentiment that has swelled behind the monarchy following the death of his father in an attempt to exert a greater political role.
Pre-eminent Cambodia historian David Chandler said any suggestion that Sihamoni, who had always seemed a reluctant king, was about to step into the political limelight was absurd.
Thomico and Soubert’s comments more likely signalled a shrewd political move to push their aims of getting Rainsy back in the country and Sonando out of jail, he said.
“I think there’s a window of opportunity to get that prisoner [Sonando] out of jail,” Chandler said.
Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales, said that in a political system in which Prime Minister Hun Sen was so dominant, it was impossible for Sihamoni to step in as dispute mediator.
“[Soubert’s comments] are a trial balloon reflecting the attitude of the elite . . . that there is this opportunity. I don’t think King Sihamoni would be behind it,” he said.
“I think it probably reflects some kind of discussions among the royal circle.”
But Thayer said that by raising a desire to end the “conundrum of Sam Rainsy” and put the country back on a democratic path, Soubert and Thomico could stimulate interesting public debate on the issue.
Rainsy said from Cote d’Ivoire yesterday he longed for the opportunity to pay his last respects to the man who had given him his political birth in 1992 by appointing him to the Supreme National Council.
“Now he has passed away. Leaving aside any political considerations, this is my human duty to pay my last respects to someone who has been so generous to me and the country,” he said.