Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha said in an interview aired yesterday that it would be better if opposition leader Sam Rainsy ended his self-imposed exile and returned to Cambodia so they could stare down arrest threats from the government together.
Sokha’s refusal to flee the country after police attempted to arrest him on May 26 has contrasted sharply with Rainsy’s decision to flee to France last year after an arrest warrant was issued, and observers have criticised the CNRP leader for his perceived timidity.
Speaking with the Singapore-based Channel News Asia in an interview recorded on Saturday, the CNRP deputy president said fleeing would have sent the wrong message to supporters and that his decision to remain in the country had proved the correct one.
“It actually encourages my supporters, and it’s better than if I escaped or ran away to hide out abroad,” Sokha said of his situation. “Throughout my stay here, I can see that people still stand strong with me. If I were to leave, people would be discouraged.”
“If Sam Rainsy came to be with me, it would be better than me being alone. But if he does not decide to come back, we can still run the party without him,” he added. “We can contact each other through electronic means like Facebook, Messenger and WhatsApp.”
Sokha was last month sentenced to five months in prison for failing to appear in court over a “prostitution” case, but last week he briefly left his hideout for the first time since May with assurances he would not be imprisoned until his appeals are exhausted.
Those assurances followed the CNRP threat of mass protests if Sokha is ever arrested, and in his interview, the deputy leader said he did not believe the government would be able to arrest him while those threats remained.
“If they arrest me, the Cambodian people would protest,” he said. “If there was an arrest, I believe that Cambodia would have problems and difficulties, as the people would not accept it.
“Even if the government wanted to suppress it, the people would still protest. It’s too serious.”
Rainsy, who is travelling in the US, did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.
Sokha’s comments are the first time he has spoken publicly in favour of Rainsy returning from his self-imposed exile. However, Kem Monovithya, his daughter and the CNRP’s deputy public affairs head, said they were not a criticism of the CNRP leader.
“It is absolutely not a rebuke to Sam Rainsy,” Monovithya said. “It is simply the reality: the struggle is here, the more people we have here, the better.”
Others were less convinced.
“Looks like Kem Sokha has finally decided to say some unpleasant truths,” said Sophal Ear, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy and an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
Ear said the recent spate of repression against the CNRP had made Rainsy’s absence conspicuous.
“I think that Sam Rainsy’s got a limited shelf-life. His party’s MPs are getting jailed daily,” he said, calling on Rainsy to return. “There aren’t too many game-changers, but one thing’s for sure, if he returned now, or before too long, it would be a game-changer.”
But Buntenh, a dissident monk who heads the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, said that he believed Sokha alone could not prove to the Cambodian people that the CNRP had the courage and the commitment to compete with the CPP.
“If Kem Sokha is alone, he is a bicycle with one wheel, and you need two wheels for a bicycle, otherwise it will seem like it is broken,” he said. “Sam Rainsy should not stay up in the sky. It’s not possible to live as a God and work for the human beings.”
“Be in the country, be with your supporters, and work with them to help defeat the government.”
However, Koul Panha, head of the elections monitor Comfrel, said he understood Rainsy’s fears of maltreatment if he were arrested, given past experiences like the 1997 grenade attack, but noted that many of his supporters were of a more dauntless mindset.
“The situation is changing, and young people are thinking differently,” Panha said. “They’re not like the old people, who are still traumatised. The young people want something different and want to see leadership that manages risk and has confidence.
“I see it a lot: young people telling him to come back and face the risk. This is the pressure on him.”
One of those young people, Bong Chansambath, a 21-year-old international relations student at the Pannasastra University and a writer for the “Politikoffee” group, said time was dwindling for Rainsy to prove his continued relevance amid Sokha’s stand.
“To me, Kem Sokha is far braver than his leader, Sam Rainsy,” Chansambath said. “Sokha has proved to his supporters that he dares to confront the CPP.”
“Rainsy always fails to confront the test of bravery with Prime Minister Hun Sen,” the student continued. “For the premier, Rainsy is no longer a competitive opponent to compete with. Sokha is.”