After four months hiding inside CNRP headquarters to avoid arrest, deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha briefly emerged from his sanctuary yesterday to register to vote, telling supporters he believed months of rising political tensions were starting to dissipate.
Sokha had not left the party’s headquarters since May 26, when armed police tried to arrest him for failing to appear in court over an alleged mistress, and Prime Minister Hun Sen had been peppering him with threats about his fate if he was ever nabbed.
Yet having been sentenced to five months in jail on September 9 for his refusal to appear, and with assurances he would remain free until appeals are over, he and other lawmakers made the short drive to Chak Angkre Loeu commune office in Meanchey district.
The trip was brief and uneventful – besides the presence of a fetid rainwater swamp around the office that required a makeshift bridge to cross – and in less than an hour, Sokha was back at CNRP headquarters declaring that his intact freedom was a sign for hope.
“I have stayed here for more than four months to advocate for a political solution to return things to normal . . . to have free and fair elections,” Sokha said. “I believe that from today, we have hope it will be heading back to normal and reaching a political solution.
“The CNRP wants to have a normal political atmosphere and a political equilibrium to allow for an election that reflects the real will of the people. This is the CNRP’s goal – and if the political atmosphere is not good, the election will not reflect that will.”
Commune council elections are scheduled for June 2017 and a reformed National Election Committee (NEC) is currently one month into a three-month rebuilding of the national voter list using biometric data to avoid past complaints of rampant voter fraud.
The voter registration has been taking place against a backdrop of what is widely seen as creeping repression, with opposition leader Sam Rainsy having fled to France in November for fear of being arrested, and other opposition lawmakers, officials and rights monitors being jailed.
The prime minister himself only last month issued what he said was “an order to eliminate those who destroy security and public order” in a speech aimed at the CNRP, after the army just days before carried out “exercises” outside the opposition headquarters.
Sokha’s short journey after the months of tension nonetheless bordered on the mundane, with his bodyguards displaying no concern as police tailed behind, and election officials registering the sentenced convict with a professional disinterest.
“Please, excellency, check whether the date and month, and the rest of it, is correct,” one of the NEC officials asked Sokha. “The date and the month and my name is correct,” the deputy opposition leader replied after perusing the slip. “Thank you very much.”
CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith told reporters after Sokha had returned inside party headquarters that the deputy leader would likely now remain there until a binding political solution with the government was struck to end attacks on the party.
Kem Monovithya, eldest daughter of the CNRP vice president and the party’s deputy head of public affairs, said in an email that Sokha’s refusal to back down to arrest threats showed that the CNRP was not the same as past opposition parties.
“What we all can learn is that CNRP is resilient and is not going anywhere,” Monovithya said. “The CPP should start accepting our existence in a real multiparty democracy. We are not their enemy; we are not their friend. We are their partner in a real democracy.”
“Going forward, we are still proactively trying to engage in genuine dialogue,” she added. “We hope for the best and also prepare for the worst.”
Sophal Ear, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy and an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said Sokha’s free movement was a positive sign – at least for the short-term.
“It means there’s a lessening of tensions. There’s an inflection point,” Ear said. “The political ceasefire appears to be holding – the CNRP MPs who went to standing committee meetings extended an olive branch; Kem Sokha not getting arrested on his way out to get registered to vote is all a Kabuki dance.
“But remember, his five-month jail sentence still looms, and he didn’t return to his home and to his bed – he can’t, not until the situation is resolved – so he went back to CNRP headquarters to live and sleep. It’s just a matter of political amnesia for the time being.”
Lawyers for Sokha, who argued that his case should have been dismissed due to his parliamentary immunity, yesterday filed an appeal against his September 9 guilty verdict for failing to appear.
NEC spokesman Hang Puthea said by telephone that Sokha would be free to vote or run in any election so long as that appeals process remained open, with only a final decision from the courts to jail him precluding him from taking part in a ballot.
“When the verdict finalises that he has been convicted . . . during his sentence, he will have no right to vote. But if he leaves the prison before elections, he will have the right to vote,” he said.
The CNRP has said it hopes to persuade the government to end the judicial harassment of their party, with Monovithya saying earlier this year that Sokha would not return to his usual living arrangements until such a comprehensive deal was struck.
However, with the CPP and CNRP both understanding what is at stake next year and at the 2018 national election, it is unlikely any easing of tensions through yet another deal could ever hold, said Cham Bunthet, a founding member of slain political analyst Kem Ley’s “Khmer for Khmer” advocacy group.
“The Tom and Jerry game cannot be ended this way. Without common goals and conditions that could prevent these two groups from fighting one another, I don’t think this is a reliable sign for freedom and democracy,” he said. “It is just a political intermission.”