Former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) official Meach Sovannara was joined by supporters at a rally in California on Saturday, where a US lawmaker hailed members of the outlawed opposition as “great freedom fighters”.
However, a Cambodian government spokesman said such a phrase belonged to the Cold War and dismissed the rally participants as “foreign puppets”.
US citizen Sovannara and 14 other ex-CNRP members were given a royal pardon and released on August 28 after spending nearly four years in prison on charges related to a political demonstration at Freedom Park in 2014 that turned violent and left dozens injured.
On Saturday, opposition supporters held a homecoming in Long Beach for Sovannara, who headed the Supreme Court-dissolved CNRP’s information department.
The event was also attended by former CNRP politician Um Sam An and Nhay Chamroeun, one of two CNRP lawmakers injured in an attack by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguards outside the National Assembly in 2015.
Republican Representative Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Democrat Alan Lowenthal, a California Representative, also attended the rally.
Sovannara, who was invited to give a speech at the UN on September 24, Chamroeun and Sam An were given a certificate of honour by Royce, while Lowenthal praised them.
“I am honoured to be here to welcome home these great freedom fighters – Um Sam An . . . all the others . . . Let’s not forget someone under house arrest, [former CNRP president] Kem Sokha. He is part of the champions of Cambodia.
“There is no change in Cambodia besides the release of political prisoners,” he claimed.
But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the phrase “great freedom fighters” came from the Cold War and did not belong in the current era. The CNRP lawmakers and activists, he said, were just “foreign puppets”.
“The so-called ‘freedom fighters’ were dissolved [CNRP leaders], and they left the country. Now the next generation of ‘freedom fighters’ are just young people who are involved in such issues not to strengthen peace and improve Cambodia’s democracy.
“They are just foreign puppets to drag Cambodia into geopolitics,” he said.
Siphan said a certificate from the US congressmen to the former CNRP officials was akin to Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi‘s Nobel Peace Prize – when she no longer served the interests of foreign countries, it would be taken back.
Lowenthal continued in his speech that Prime Minister Hun Sen had promised “free and fair elections” but had instead targeted the Kingdom’s largest opposition party.
“He tried to destroy the opposition, he arrested the opposition, and the US Congress will not stand for that.
“We recently passed the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2018, which for the first time places sanctions on the Cambodian government. We will champion human rights and freedom, and we will not stop until democracy returns to Cambodia,” Lowenthal claimed.
Siphan countered that Cambodia is a country that follows its own constitution – one that does not favour or work for the benefit of other countries.
“Those foreign puppets serve foreign countries and intend to topple the current government which was created in the [July 29] elections.
In a video clip posted on his Facebook page, Sovannara, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the Freedom Park protest, praised US Congressmen Lowenthal, Royce, and Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican Representative.
“This is the principle of representatives from a democratic country which respects the law. This is in contrast to Cambodia, where powerful people abuse their power and don’t respect the people.
“Where is the freedom of democracy for people who live In Cambodia?,” Sovannara asked.
He continued: “Cambodian people who live abroad are part of the movement encouraging democracy for the Cambodian people who were not given rights and oppressed, and [meted] injustice.
“They have you to help them. In my case, I was imprisoned. Cambodian people protested in Washington DC, New York, everywhere asking for [my] release and that of other political prisoners.”
After expressing thanks to Cambodians abroad who supported him and other political prisoners, he turned his attention to former CNRP president Kem Sokha.
“Finally, I want to see the release of president Kem Sokha who was in prison and is now under [what amounts to] house arrest,” he said.
Analyst Hang Vitou said it is not uncommon for former CNRP lawmakers to criticise the Cambodian government. Whether such criticism is fair or not, he said, was for people to decide.
“I think [political] criticism in a democratic society is very normal, especially for those who have been imprisoned after [complaints from the government].
“However, I think their criticism reflects the reality in Cambodia, [a country where] human rights abuses have been committed, a country that is not committed to democracy,” he said.
“I think it is normal. They feel the need to criticise because of what they have experienced, but only the public can say whether such criticism is fair or not,” he added.