The year in Cambodian politics began with phone-tapping, sex scandals and jailed rights workers, but it finished on a different note thanks to the brinkmanship of CNRP deputy head Kem Sokha. What happens next remains anyone’s guess.
With opposition leader Sam Rainsy having again escaped to his apartment in Paris to avoid prison and Prime Minister Hun Sen blithely declaring that the opposition was “stupid” for trusting him, 2016 opened with Cambodian politics back to its fraught version of normal.
The revolutionary spirit of the nationwide garment worker strike and the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s mass protests that had closed 2013, as well as Hun Sen and Rainsy’s chummy “culture of dialogue” that closed 2014, seemed like a vague, days-old dream.
The rest of the game seemed too predictable: Hun Sen, routinely touted as a strategic genius, had once again vanquished a challenger to his 30-year rule simply by banking on the perceived cowardice of an enemy who had repeatedly chosen to run rather than fight.
It would now be as simple as disassembling the rest of the opposition party, including Rainsy’s deputy, Kem Sokha, and absorbing its better talents into his regime then arresting the remainder. His message sent, Hun Sen could secure another decade of rule.
But then Sokha did something no one had done before: He declined to sidle up to Hun Sen, or to escape when the premier attacked him, instead glibly daring him to follow through on his threats of arrest. See what happens if you arrest me, he warned.
Suddenly, it was feeling a bit more like 2013 again.
Sex, Spies and Scrutiny
A decade before the government disposed of Rainsy and set its sights on Sokha in March 2016, the target had been Prince Norodom Ranariddh. He was living with a mistress, it was said, and that was enough to land the final blow to his political career.
“Who does not have a mistress?” Princess Norodom Vichara asked at the time. She was unimpressed with the treatment of the prince for what she saw as a human error. But 10 years later, Hun Sen’s government seemed to take the comment as a snippet of strategic advice.
Who, in fact, did not have a mistress? Did Sokha? The ruling party’s preferred news source, Fresh News, began trying to answer that question from early March, publishing dozens of telephone call recordings it said were between Sokha and a young mistress.
Initially appearing on a Facebook account that purported to belong to the woman, Sokha’s 25-year-old hairdresser Khom Chandaraty – and later on an account named “Truth of the CNRP” – Fresh News eventually began posting the recordings to the site on its own.
“What should I do?” the woman asked in one. “They called and said they have the audio of me talking to you,” she said. “I will die, I will be so embarrassed.” The man, with a voice identical to Sokha’s replied: “Tell people that we just have a normal relationship.”
Other chats were explicitly sexual. Many of the calls, which spanned a period of years, appeared to be recorded from the man’s end of the line. Many wondered then if it was Sokha’s voice, just who might have tapped his phone.
“The CPP has never used such an ugly trick,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said on March 1, after the first recordings leaked. But even if the CPP was not behind the carefully stage-managed sex scandal, it was making as much use of it as possible.
By the close of March, the Ministry of Interior’s anti-terrorism police had interrogated Chandaraty, one of Sokha’s alleged mistresses, about her relationship with him. She denied the accusation. No official could ever explain why anti-terrorism police were involved with the case.
Anti-Corruption Unit chief Om Yentieng, who has publicly rejected claims of having up to three of his own mistresses, one of whom was accused of forestry crimes, said he would launch an investigation into how Sokha could have promised to buy a mistress a house.
A few months later, Yentieng appeared to confirm what many people had suspected about the source of the recordings of Sokha’s alleged phone calls.
“We can tap whatever we want . . . but we only use it when necessary,” Yentieng said at a press conference.
The daring deputy
If Sokha had chosen to flee abroad in an atmosphere that had already scene a mob gather outside his home and pelt it with rocks, few would have been surprised. Instead, he chose to remain, adopting what he called a policy of “don’t argue, don’t answer, don’t respond” towards the accusations of infidelity.
At a meeting of the CNRP standing committee, with Rainsy joining from France via Skype, the opposition leader called on Sokha to join him in self-imposed exile to avoid arrest at the hands of the government, according to party member Prince Sisowath Thomico.
Sokha refused, the prince said, saying it would be a bad image for the opposition to have both leaders escaping abroad. The committee voted, and the deputy CNRP leader’s choice to remain won. It was a decision that would seem increasingly wise as the year wore on.
In the meantime, Sokha continued to traverse the country giving rousing speeches, touting the large numbers of former CPP supporters he said were moving to the CNRP. But he never diverged from the “don’t argue, don’t answer, don’t respond” policy.
This, for some reason, infuriated Srey Chamroeun, a pontificating university student in his 20s who would not say where he studied. Chamroeun and about a dozen associates began trailing Sokha wherever he went, demanding he respond to the affair allegations.
“He has no right to run any businesses, therefore we wonder where he got the money to buy a house and land up to thousands of dollars and have financial support for his mistress to run businesses,” Chamroeun said on March 21 in defense of his actions.
By late March, Hun Sen was publicly chiming in. In a public speech, he said he had photos on his smartphone of Sokha in a Bangkok hotel with an alleged mistress, and that he was still considering what legal measures the government might take against him.
A lot had already happened in the year, and it was only April. Yet anybody who thought the turmoil might subside after Khmer New Year would have been sorely mistaken. For the authorities, April was a month they would need to earn their paychecks.
CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An, who had been living in the US for more than six months to avoid Hun Sen’s warnings that he would be arrested over 2015 claims he made on Facebook that the government was using illegal maps to demarcate the border with Vietnam.
He was arrested the night after touching down at Siem Reap International Airport on April 10 and charged two days later with incitement to commit felonies and to cause discrimination. It was the first time a lawmaker with immunity from prosecution had been jailed.
Happy New Year
On the other side of the globe, Hun Manet, the eldest son of Hun Sen and his presumed heir, was having a poor Khmer New Year in the US. Having faced a number of protests there staged by Cambodian diaspora, things would only get worse.
In California, Manet was sued in federal court for the imprisonment of CNRP official and US citizen Meach Sovannara. Sovannara’s wife said her husband’s 20-year jail sentence for “leading an insurrection” at a July Freedom Park protest was unlawful.
The case for Manet’s direct role in the arrest was flimsy, but the story grew legs when one of Manet’s bodyguards allegedly picked up Paul Hayes, a US private investigator sent to subpoena Manet for the case during his visit to Long Beach, and dropped him on his head.
Hayes passed out and was hospitalised in an ICU for a week with a bruised spinal cord.
Back in Cambodia, the passing of the New Year gave authorities time to pause for reflection about how they were approaching the accusations that Sokha took a mistress, which was itself not a crime. Upon reflection, they decided it was time for some arrests anyway.
The basis: Chandaraty, facing repeated questioning from anti-terrorism police over “prostitution”, suddenly reversed her denials of a affair. Instead, on April 23, she sued Sokha for $300,000 she said he had promised her during their relationship but never delivered.
She also implicated Seang Cheat, an opposition commune chief from her family home in Kampong Cham province, eight officials from rights group Adhoc and a senior National Election Committee official of bribing her to deny the affair.
The amount: $204. Adhoc, which had been providing her legal support throughout her questioning by police, said the money was to support her after she lost her job during the legal case. A week later, five Adhoc officials, the NEC official and Chet were in prison for bribing a witness. The prostitution case disappeared.
Adhoc president Thun Saray, who had been a civil society leader since the start of the gradual reforms of Hun Sen’s socialist regime in the late 1980s and had led the rights group since its founding in 1991 without once fleeing, escaped to Canada for fear of his safety.
Despite the CPP vehemently denying ordering the arrests of the six in prison, Hun Sen publicly predicted Sokha would soon join them.
A million dollar opening
At the end of April, Thy Sovantha, a social media star who as an 18-year-old had become the face of the CNRP’s groundbreaking campaign for the 2013 election, sued Sokha for $1 million for claiming she had defrauded Cambodian-American CNRP supporters.
Sokha, she said, made the claim that she was growing rich off donations from the US in one of the leaked telephone recordings, after also denying that he had ever had an affair with her.
“I will still support CNRP if they remove Kem Sokha, but I will not if Kem Sokha is still there,” Sovantha said at a press conference on May 14, where she was joined by Srey Chamroeun, the student who had led the campaign against Sokha from early March.
Sokha’s daughter and CNRP party official Kem Monovithya had as early as 2013 claimed that Sovantha was a CPP sleeper agent who would one day turn on the party, and in January 2014 had helped engineer a CNRP press release that clarify that Sovantha, then deeply popular, had no role in the party.
It suddenly seemed a plausible claim. In addition to suing Sokha for $1 million, Sovantha also warned she might file a complaint accusing him of sex trafficking for having taken his mistress to Bangkok. Court officials said they would consider the complaint if filed.
In the background, the government appeared to be chipping away at the CNRP. Rong Chhun, one of the CNRP’s picks to sit on the reformed National Election Committee, received notice in May that a criminal case against him over the 2013 postelection protests was moving forward.
According to the law, a conviction in the case would lead to Chhun losing his place on the NEC. The CNRP would then be able to select a replacement, but that person would have to be approved in a vote by the National Assembly, where the CPP has a comfortable majority.
With the nine-member NEC carefully balanced with four CPP selections, four CNRP selections and one consensus selection as a tie-breaker after the electoral reforms of 2014 and 2015, removing Chhun from the equation would put the CPP in a very favourable position.
The reforms were much heralded by Rainsy, who was by May seemingly growing frustrated with Sokha’s rising star amid his stand against Hun Sen’s threats. In one visit to the US, a CNRP supporter asked him why he did not stay in Cambodia as Aung San Suu Kyi had once done in Myanmar.
“If Sam Rainsy goes to Cambodia now, and Sam Rainsy is jailed or killed, no problem, but after I die, please tell me whether Cambodia will get away from the claw of the Yuon, and I will agree immediately,” Rainsy replied, using a crude term for the Vietnamese.
Arrests and assassination
On May 26, as Sokha’s SUV was leaving CNRP headquarters, heavily armed police surrounded the car and attempted to arrest him for failing to appear in court that morning for questioning over his alleged mistress. Inside the vehicle, police found only Sokha’s wife.
Either by design or pure fortune, Sokha was still inside the headquarters – he would remain there for the next six months. While Hun Sen threatened to jail Sokha “forever”, the CNRP warned of mass protests if any further arrest attempts were made.
Sokha’s stand was apparently causing differences of opinion inside the government. Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told the media on multiple occasions that the police might be instructed not to arrest him if Sokha if they feared it could cause turmoil.
“My personal point of view is that if [we] arrest Mr Kem Sokha, it will be a loss to the national interest,” Sopheak said. “So what are we arresting him for?”
Interior Minister Sar Kheng had long been seen as the leader of a rival faction to that of Hun Sen in the CPP, and speculation abounded that he was not on board with the aggressive pursuit of Sokha over an affair the public did not seem to care much about.
From France, Rainsy through June continued to court international support for the CNRP’s cause to put pressure on Hun Sen. But the travails of Rainsy, Sokha and the imprisoned Adhoc officials were thrust suddenly into the background on the morning of July 10.
Many observers had believed that for all of Cambodia’s ills, the scourge of political assassinations that ravaged the 1990s and 2000s was over. No such killing had been carried out since 2008, the year that the CPP won 90 of the 123 seats at the national election.
Yet on July 10, a Sunday morning, celebrated political commentator and researcher Kem Ley lay dead in a pool of his own blood on the floor of a Caltex Starmart in the center of Phnom Penh, wearing a simple polo shirt, track pants and Nike sneakers.
The man who shot him with a Glock – once in the temple, once under the arm, like a trained assassin – claimed a $3,000 debt owed by Ley had motivated him. He gave his name only as the morbid “Chuop Samlap” – or “Meet Kill” – and said little more.
Even Sopheak, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said he doubted the story could be real.
Some cast their minds back to a report by Global Witness launched just three days before the murder that showed Hun Sen’s family had business holdings in excess of $200 million. Ley had been on the radio discussing the report just two days before his shooting.
Rainsy, who was himself the subject of a failed assassination attempt in March 1997, had no doubts about who was behind the killing of Ley: Hun Sen. Yet the CPP had a different explanation entirely, asking the public to consider who benefitted from Ley’s death.
Only the CNRP, the CPP said. The party said that people would inevitably blame the government for killing Kem Ley, who was a critic of both parties but reserved his worst criticism for the CPP. Rainsy said such hypothesising added “insult to injury and death” and had gone beyond “any possible limit on indecency”.
Ley’s death was felt across the country, with a funeral procession from the pagoda where he lay in wake in Phnom Penh to his hometown in Takeo province. It stretched for more than 5 kilometers and took the entirety of July 24 to make the 70km journey.
In early August, Hun Sen sued Rainsy and opposition Senator Thak Lany, who he alleged also accused him of being behind Ley’s murder. Lany joined Rainsy in fleeing abroad.
Speculations about a split inside the CPP over the prosecution of Sokha had also not faded. As interior minister, Kheng controlled the police, but not the military, where Hun Sen has long cultivated a base. On the last day of August, that base paid a visit to CNRP headquarters.
Four Chinese-made Z-9 military helicopters circled and swooped the building as Sokha sat inside. Half a dozen speedboats, a few with mounted machine guns, did laps along the Tonle Sap river that lies behind building. Balaclava-clad soldiers armed with AK-47s drove back and forth along the road in front of the building.
It was a standard military drill that just happened to centre around Sokha’s hiding place, Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Sucheat said at the time. But the CNRP interpreted it as an act of intimidation against Sokha, and perhaps not without reason.
Only the day before, Royal Cambodian Armed Forces deputy commander-in-chief Kun Kim – a close ally of Hun Sen who Human Rights Watch had once described as the premier’s “axe man” – had said he stood prepared to arrest Sokha or Rainsy if ordered.
“I am a law enforcer, and the armed forces defend the government. Provided that there are orders, I must enforce, I must defend the government,” Kim said in a video uploaded to social media. “Even ... if we expend flesh and blood, we must enforce the law.”
It was a bizarre promise from an official in the military, which should have no jurisdiction over criminal cases, and it stood in stark contrast to the concerns of Sopheak, the Interior Ministry spokesman, about the potential for turmoil if Sokha were arrested.
A Strongman’s Surrender
Like a pocket watch unwinding through 12-hour cycles, Cambodian politics has a way of running through a predictable routine of tension and release, and by October, the year of scandal, arrest and murder was ready for the inevitable conciliation.
Hun Sen, apparently unwilling to follow through with his threats of imprisoning Sokha “forever”, started to calm down. Sokha in September had been sentenced to five months’ prison for his failure to appear in court, and had been told he would not be arrested until his appeals were exhausted.
At the same time, the NEC slowly worked its way through re-registering what it estimated were 9.6 million Cambodians over the age of 18 to its voter list between the start of September and the end of November. It managed to register about 80 percent.
While the premier must have surely enjoyed a Cambodia with no opposition leaders – with Rainsy in self-imposed exile and Sokha in self-imposed detention – Sokha’s lawyers were pushing his appeals, and soon the decision to arrest or not would have to be made.
From CNRP headquarters, Sokha told Channel News Asia that he believed it would be “better” if Rainsy ended his exile and came to join him in Cambodia. It was the first time Sokha had spoken negatively in public of Rainsy’s decision to flee the country in 2015.
For the opposition leader, who was evidently growing tired of being criticised for leaving Cambodia in November 2015, the government in November offered him the ultimate present – it banned his return to Cambodia.
“I am no longer the ‘Cambodian opposition leader in self-imposed exile’, as foreign journalists used to write about me,” Rainsy wrote in an October 23 email after the revelation of the bans. He has since sent corrections to media when called “self-exiled”.
On December 2, Hun Sen wrote to King Norodom Sihamoni to request a royal pardon for Sokha’s crime of not appearing court, which had been upheld by the Appeal Court on November 6 and were headed to the Supreme Court, after which he would have to be arrested.
The King complied, and Sokha was truly free for the first time in six months. Apparently doing his best impression of a Cambodian politician in reconciliation mode with the premier, he later said he had come to understand the CPP had its strong points, too.
“It’s not true to say the government has done nothing,” Sokha said in a public speech one week after his pardon. “Now sports are very to up-to-date.
“If we respected human rights, and sports continue improving, the government would be on the right track.”
Change or No Change
With the June 4 commune elections now just five months away, any questions about the relative popularity of both parties; whether or not the CNRP’s political coalition can be broken by Hun Sen; and the revamped NEC’s ability to run fair elections will be answered.
The election will lock into place for five years the 1,600 or so commune councils, which 49 percent of people consider to be the level of government that impacts them most, compared to 27 percent for the national level, a 2014 Asia Foundation national survey said.
The CNRP says it is confident that the CPP – a party it sees as rotten to the core, beyond reform and utterly exposed by the rise of social media as the country’s dominant news sources – has lost its base and cannot win an election.
Yet the CPP, which won control of 1,592 commune councils to the opposition’s collective 40 at the June 2012 vote, has publicly expressed confidence in its ability to overturn the surging support for the CNRP that was revealed during the 2013 national election.
It’s the CPP that has the record of maintaining power against all odds, after all, and the opposition that has an uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. As the opposition’s Son Soubert said earlier this month, wherever there’s ego, things can go wrong.
Worse for the opposition, even if they can defeat the CPP at the ballot box, if they are also correct about the ruling party’s control over the military, police and courts - and its authoritarian tendencies - the cycle of tension and release may not yet have hit its peak.