The Cambodia National Rescue Party will refuse to appoint a new president following the arrest of current leader Kem Sokha on Sunday, Deputy President Mu Sochua said yesterday, a decision she acknowledged may lead to the dissolution of the party should Sokha be convicted of treason.
In an interview yesterday, Sochua said naming a new president would make the CNRP “an accomplice to the destruction of democracy”, but added the opposition would not take to the streets to protest Sokha’s arrest.
“We demand the release with no conditions of Kem Sokha,” she said, adding that the CNRP’s existence could no longer be used as a “bartering chip”.
Of the decision not to protest, she said, “There are too many elements we can’t control.
“One little incident and they will go after all of us.”
But failing to appoint a new president in place of Sokha could see the CNRP – the ruling party’s only viable contender at next year’s election – completely dismantled.
In February, the Cambodian People’s Party-led National Assembly pushed through amendments banning convicted criminals from holding leadership positions in political parties.
A letter run by government mouthpiece media outlet Fresh News from “Chaksmok Chao” – who also penned a letter slamming the National Democratic Institute before its expulsion from the country last month – appeared to offer the opposition an olive branch yesterday, urging Sokha to step down and allow senior deputy Pol Ham to take his place.
The letter, which reads more like a set of instructions, highlights that both former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy and former Khmer National United Party leader Nhek Bun Chhay stepped down to save their parties.
“Even if he does not dare to sacrifice [himself], Kem Sokha will lose the post of party president automatically because according to the Law on Political Parties, a convict cannot be the party president,” the letter reads.
Maintaining his position from within prison would be “in vain”, the letter adds, and warns that protesting Sokha’s arrest would lead to the termination of the CNRP.
Sochua, however, was adamant yesterday that the CPP would have to either clear Sokha or dissolve the party.
Cambodia awoke on Sunday morning to the news that Sokha had been arrested in a midnight raid and accused of treason. He has since been whisked away to a prison in Tbong Khmum province, over 150 kilometres from Phnom Penh, which observers have said is to avoid protests erupting in the capital.
He was followed by his wife, Te Chanmono, and a team of five lawyers – Sam Sokong, Pheng Heng, Hem Socheat, Chan Chen and Meng Sopheary.
Sokha’s legal team was allowed to see him for 10 minutes yesterday morning, and accompanied him during a four-hour questioning session that they said took a toll on Sokha’s health.
“He got sick before the authorities arrested him and needs medicine” for high blood pressure, Sokong said, adding Sokha has not yet been given medication.
“Kem Sokha is not well at this time,” Chen agreed.
Sokong said the opposition leader has not been formally charged, and declined to comment further on his questioning.
After waiting for seven hours, Chanmono was allowed to visit her husband at around 6pm, but could not be reached for comment.
At around 7:30pm, however, Sokha’s Twitter account posted a “message from prison”.
“I may lose freedom, but may freedom never die in Cambodia,” it read.
In the face of overwhelming domestic pressure, Mu Sochua and other senior CNRP members called on the international donor community to take action to prevent the dissolution of the CNRP.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch also called on the international community to weigh in, adding that the focus shouldn’t be on what the CNRP will do next, but what the CPP has already done.
“After the government manufactured bogus charges against two CNRP presidents, why should anyone believe they won’t just do it against the next person?” he asked, calling for diplomats and UN agencies to refuse to recognise the upcoming elections as legitimate.
Political analyst Ou Virak said the decision to stand by Sokha was the CNRP’s only realistic choice, explaining that the move forces the government to make a decision that it likely didn’t expect or want to make, and could in fact strengthen the CNRP. “Having their leader in jail will resonate more with the public as a symbol of resistance,” he said.
Allowing yet another leader to get pushed out, on the other hand, would weaken the opposition beyond recovery, he added. “They wouldn’t be able to excite the base, most people wouldn’t turn out to vote,” he said.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said if Sokha is convicted and remains president, the CNRP would be “disappeared” and its other leaders banned from politics for five years. “It’s up to the CNRP. We really don’t care about that,” he said.
But despite the odds, Sochua said she was undaunted.
“There will be a solution. There has always been a solution. I’m optimistic,” she said.