In an interview with The Post yesterday, former opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour opened up about his more than two-year stint in prison, following a royal pardon on Wednesday from King Norodom Sihamoni.
Sitting under the thatched roof of a gazebo in his sprawling backyard, Sok Hour recalled that just 24 hours before he had been sharing a 20-square-metre cell with 30 other people.
“I couldn’t sleep in the heat. If we had even half a metre of space to sleep, that would have been wonderful,” he said.
Sok Hour detailed the overwhelming monotony of his day-to-day life.
“I had a lot of time,” he explained.
Every day he would wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning, drink a coffee and read the English-language press. At about 8am, they would let him out for an hourlong walk – back and forth across 20 metres. Then he would eat lunch and rest before again reading the paper and taking another walk. His days would end with dinner and the radio – either Voice of America or Radio Free Asia.
“The unforgettable thing was the loss of freedom. When we are outside the prison we do not know the importance of our freedom. When we go into the prison we lose that freedom and we understand the importance,” he said.
Sok Hour secured his release after writing Prime Minister Hun Sen a letter of apology. He insists that there had been “no political contact” between them, nor any deal agreed to.
“Over the past two years, I thought Samdech Prime Minister had reduced his anger over my actions,” he said, explaining why he wrote the letter.
Sok Hour was arrested in August 2015 after posting a “fake” border treaty on Facebook that appeared to show then-head of state Heng Samrin agreeing to dissolve the border with Vietnam. Sok Hour claimed he simply found the document online, and asked the court to forgive his mistake at the time.
Sok Hour’s pardon follows recent pledges from the premier to welcome any CNRP official who defects to the ruling CPP. Both Sok Hour and government spokesmen have denied that his release was part of a back-room deal.
“What I regret is that I asked the court to allow me to correct my mistake, but the court did not listen to my explanation,” he said.
Of particular concern, Sok Hour said, was his deteriorating health condition.
“I could not stay in the prison because I have a health problem,” he said, explaining that he would go to France soon for treatment and to visit his children.
He did, however, pledge to return to Cambodia afterwards, though he is uncertain about a political future.
More than half of CNRP lawmakers are currently abroad, with at least a dozen leaving the country since the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha, who is currently held in a Tbong Khmum prison.
“I was shocked, too, that we have reached this point, but I still believe that we will not reach the zero point – the dissolution of the CNRP. On behalf of the Cambodian people, we can discuss with each other,” Sok Hour said.
Ear Sophal, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said the timing of Sok Hour’s release amidst international pressure and CNRP defections was “suspicious”, but likely a coincidence.
He attributed his release to the “conciliatory letter”, saying the document was “very much the kind of letter of self-criticism one would expect under a communist regime”.
While Hun Sen has been known to ease pressure slightly after aggressively targeting political opponents, Sophal said the premier was no longer so predictable.
“He did in the past do that, but he hasn’t really taken his foot off the gas pedal in some time now . . . so the pattern is not so predictable these days,” he wrote via email on Wednesday night.
Sok Hour, however, believes there will be as many as 15 pardons to come of political prisoners, especially with international pressure mounting.
“The government knows the red line that should not be crossed,” he said.