FORMER National Assembly human rights commission chair Kem Sokha - who became something
of a human rights cause celebré himself (pictured above) - emerged from hiding
Dec 15 to face a court summons. But he said he still fears for his safety if he returns
to his old, outspoken ways.
In his first interview in two months, the longtime government critic said his future
in Cambodia was unclear, as he is torn between worrying about security and standing
up for his beliefs.
"Sometimes thinking about my children, my family, I want to keep quiet, but
if I meet my poor people, who have so many problems, if I hear of the human rights
violations, of corruption, I cannot keep quiet," Sokha said. "But now I
don't know what I can do."
He said while he felt safe enough to come to court after his security was assured
by Prince Ranariddh as part of the Nov 14 summit with Hun Sen that led to the coalition
government, he remains concerned.
"I still travel only in Phnom Penh. I'm still afraid," he said. He related
a story of how his wife was followed by armed police in Phnom Penh and was forced
to drive in an elaborate square to Kampong Speu, Kampot and Takeo, finally abandoning
her car and taking a taxi, before she shook them off.
"I heard I still cannot go abroad now ... this is a concern," he went on.
"Maybe they look for me if I speak out again ... I am still worried because
I do not have full rights like other people."
Municipal court investigating judge Mong Mony Chariya said Sokha is still under investigation
regarding speeches he made during September's anti-government "Democracy Square"
sit-in. He said it was not clear if Sokha would be questioned again.
The summons - on charges of incitement to violence, property destruction, racism
and criminal acts stemming from his speeches - was decried by human rights groups
as a violation of the right to freedom of expression.
Sokha went underground in late September when he received the first of three summonses,
as the government broke up the sit-in and slapped a travel ban on opposition politicians.
He tried to flee the country twice but was stopped at the airport on each occasion.
He declined to say who had sheltered him, but did say he received help while in hiding
from US Congresspersons, the US Embassy here, the Prince, and UN officials.
However, he did not receive an invitation to the UN's Dec 10 commemoration of the
50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - although he went
"Maybe they think I am still in hiding," he said. "I'm not surprised
because I no longer have the function [in government]."
But he did castigate some in the international community for turning their backs
on human rights in Cambodia.
"I want to call on the international community ... they cannot do like last
time," he said, noting that many countries signed the Paris Peace Agreements
but few spoke out to bolster the rights commitments therein. "I never see a
sign of this commitment when they kill Cambodian people here, like the 30th of March,
July 97, the demonstrations - how many countries are concerned about this?"
"So many countries have so much money ... they think they can have development
without looking at human rights," he said. "If they give us money and not
concern, they do not help our country."
At court on Dec 15, Sokha answered questions for two hours and then expressed hope
that the case would be dropped.
"I was not the organizer, everyone knows who led the demonstration, and now
they are sitting at the Assembly, why does the court charge only me?" he said
outside the court.
While Sam Rainsy, Prince Rana-riddh and other sitting parliamentarians also spoke
at Democracy Square, only Sokha - who lost his seat in the election and thus his
immunity - and another losing opposition politician (Po Tey, who has left the country)
Sokha has long been a thorn in the side of Hun Sen on rights issues, and in his capacity
as human rights commission chair pushed Hun Sen on reforms.
"Every year [Hun Sen] speaks good things, but implementation I never see,"
he said. "Every year I talked with Hun Sen about human rights, we have some
souvenir - he was angry with me sometimes!"
Many observers reckoned that Sokha was an easy target on which to pin the blame for
crimes occurring during the sit-in. Raging mobs, allegedly stirred up by anti-Vietnamese
speeches at the sit-in, killed four ethnic Vietnamese and defaced a Khmer-Vietnamese
"I underlined to the court that I have never conducted either crime or violence,
and I have never incited protesters to act on any violence," he said.
Sokha recognizes that he is now in a precarious position. "Last time I had immunity,
I spoke in the name of my people, not only for me. Now I speak only for myself, [it's]
different." He says he has joined the Funcinpec Party, hinting that the government
partner offers him more protection than the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, which many
observers expected him to join.
"Funcinpec is like the big tree, I can stay without the sun, not so hot for
me." He said his membership in Funcinpec was confirmed in a Sep 25 letter to
Ranariddh, although it had been discussed earlier.
He added that his Son Sann Party would also hold a party congress with Funcinpec
in order to integrate the two parties.
As for his own future, he said he would probably not be interested in any government
post but a legislative one - "because the legislature is not controlled one
hundred percent by the Prime Minister".
He is not eligible to take over a vacated Funcinpec National Assembly seat because
he was not on the Funcinpec candidate list, but he hinted he would be interested
in a Senate post, if the body proves to be more than just a sinecure for Chea Sim
"First, I can get immunity, and second I can continue my interests in human
rights and democracy."
But he was pessimistic about the future of human rights in Cambodia, mentioning that
his old job, as well as key posts on the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, are held
by CPP members.
"I am worried... [The government] has a platform, they have a commitment, but
they do not have the people who can implement, so that human rights are not only
a dream. Human rights leaders should have good implementation, not only commitment,"
"But I don't know if Hun Sen wants to change ... if he wants to change, he should
select good people. But if he doesn't want change, the human rights situation in
Cambodia is not good."