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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Threats rattle outspoken MPs

Threats rattle outspoken MPs

P ERSISTENT death threats against two of the government's most outspoken critics

in the National Assembly have prompted one to leave the country and another to

consider going for good.

MP Kem Sokha spent the past week organizing a

month-long trip with his family to the United States, officially at the

invitation of three universities.

But sources close to the National

Assembly human rights commission chairman say his main reason for leaving was a

series of threats, including a warning from an Interior Ministry employee that

"April would be the worst month" for him.

Both Sokha and his Buddhist

Liberal Democratic Party colleague, MP Son Chhay, are said to have been

consistently threatened, followed and warned of rumors of attacks on their lives

in recent months.

Sokha would not comment, except to say he planned to

have left town by the end of this week, to lecture at American universities and

campaign for support for the United Nations Center for Human Rights office in

Phnom Penh - which the government wants closed by the end of the year.

He

produced three letters - dated successively March 15, 16 and 17 - from the Johns

Hopkins, Harvard and Columbia universities inviting him to speak about Cambodian

politics and human rights.

Chhay, a resolute critic of government

corruption, said he hoped rumors that MPs lives were in danger were

"misunderstandings and not fact".

But he said he was worried about his

family's safety and beginning to think about leaving politics - and

Cambodia.

"It is a choice now I have to consider every day: one, to stop

talking - even though they are destroying the country in terms of corruption...

or leaving the country, leaving the MP's life and just going back to Australia,

where I am a citizen," said Chhay.

"So far, I'm coming close to a

decision to go back to Australia, because I think I have sacrificed my life and

my family to come here and do some good things for the country...

"At

the end, I see no point of continuing to do this. You see no point of doing it

alone. To change the attitude of the country, of the people, to provide law and

order and justice and fairness... it's not a thing you can do alone."

Chhay would not discuss specific threats. But in the past he has

publicly complained about anonymous telephone calls, and open threats from

military officials including Co-Defense Minister Tea Chamrath.

"If you

worry about dying all the time, maybe its no use to become a politician in this

country... the increasing threats towards people who stand up it doesn't scare

me. It pushes me to go further, its better to sit down to discuss problems.

Don't try to scare me."

Another maverick MP, former finance minister Sam

Rainsy, is due to return to Cambodia before the Khmer New Year after attending

the ICORC donor conference in Paris and visiting the US and Canada.

His

wife, Tioulong Saumura, said the couple have received no direct threats "but

indirectly, from friends and so-called friends coming and saying 'You should be

careful.' Even from foreign ambassadors."

"Of course I am scared of the

prospect of becoming a widow. But whether I am scared or not is not the point...

the point is we believe in democracy and freedom and the government has always

said that the human rights situation is fine... if the situation is fine, I

trust the government," she said.

Saumura insisted her husband had not

left Cambodia because of threats, saying: "If he had been scared, he would never

have left his wife and daughter behind."

Meanwhile, three US senators

have written to the co-Prime Ministers on March 31, warning that Cambodia's

international reputation would be damaged by any perceived threats against

politicians.

The March 31 letter urged the Prime Ministers to the ensure

the safety of all MPs who criticize the government.

Some observers

suggest that Rainsy is in the safest position because he is known

internationally as a government critic and, according to one, "if anything

happened to him the government would have to find a good excuse for that, to

explain to the public".

But that reasoning has not convinced Sokha and

Chhay to become more outspoken, or other would-be critics to speak

up.

"Many of them [MPs] may feel it is not safe to speak out, even if

they would like to do so," said one foreign observer.

"If you are the

Cambodian equivalent of a backbencher, not only is it your right to criticize

proposed government legislation, but it is your duty."

One source said it

was no surprise that critics are being forced to leave. "Given the limited

number of options, leaving the country has always got to be on the list."

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