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Paying the price to protect Kem Sokha

CNRP supporter Chin Nheb speaks to reporters at CNRP headquarters earlier this month.
CNRP supporter Chin Nheb speaks to reporters at CNRP headquarters earlier this month. Hong Menea

Paying the price to protect Kem Sokha

For the past three months, 41-year-old Chin Nheb has woken each day in her Tuol Tompoung residence with one question on her mind – can I afford to go to the headquarters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party?

Frequently, she decides she has no option.

“I have to protect him,” she says, referring to CNRP acting president Kem Sokha, who has been holed up there for three months.

And so, with the decision made, she gets on her motorcycle and makes her way through the traffic along National Road 2 to the CNRP’s offices.

That decision comes with a cost. Nheb, who hails from Takeo province but who now lives in the capital with her husband and 11-year-old daughter, is a grocer and sells her wares outside her house in the southern Phnom Penh neighbourhood.

Nheb’s earnings are meagre: on some days her business brings in just 10,000 or 20,000 riel (about $2.50 to $5.00). That makes the choice harder, because closing shop for three or four days a week has financial consequences.

“With this money, I have to support my family and I have to send some money to my parents in Takeo,” she told the Post at the opposition party’s headquarters. “When I’m here, I lose some income. But I don’t care.”

Nheb is one of the hundreds of CNRP supporters who answered the party’s call to stand vigil outside its headquarters following the attempt by the military police to arrest Sokha three months ago. That followed the decision by the CNRP’s deputy leader that he would ignore a court summons to appear for questioning in connection with an alleged sex scandal.

Sokha is facing a slew of court cases related to his alleged relationship with Khom Chandaraty, also known as Srey Mom. He has been holed up at CNRP HQ since May 26.

The CNRP leader was first slapped with a $1 million defamation suit by social media celebrity Thy Sovantha for disparaging her in a leaked audio recording allegedly between him and Chandaraty.

This was followed by a $300,000 case by Chandaraty in lieu of broken promises he allegedly made to her – a house and money.

Last but not least, it was announced this week that Sokha will also face trial for skipping court summonses in these cases.

Analysis: CNRP's leadership lockdown

Speaking to the Post during a party workshop in mid-August, Nheb found herself among CNRP commune officials and lawmakers debating the merits of increased decentralisation at the grassroots level – a recent initiative by the party to focus on policy matters.

As the nearly three-hour long workshop crept along, Nheb was one of a handful of participants paying attention to speakers, though she occasionally engaged in small-talk with fellow supporters.

“This workshop is interesting, but these are the same issues that have been discussed already,” she said. “I want to see real change.”

“Real change” for Nheb means a new leader for Cambodia; that outcome is the main driver for her frequent visits to CNRP headquarters over the past three months.

“The current leader [Hun Sen] doesn’t seem to love the citizens,” Nheb said. “So, I come here to say that no matter what happens, we have to change the leader.”

As the several dozen supporters passed their time discussing politics and the everyday happenings in their respective provinces or villages, Nheb said she has been able to make a few strong friendships during her time.

One of these is Duch Sokhoeun, a coffee-seller in Tuol Tompoung. While the pair have known each other since the 2013 national election, they have grown closer after making the weekly trek down National Road 2.

“Before, I used only to see her walking past my house with her husband,” Sokhoeun said of Nheb. “But now we go almost everywhere together.”

One such recent occasion was the huge turnout last month for the funeral of outspoken political analyst Kem Ley – a killing many believe was political. In the past, the duo also travelled with party officials to Svay Rieng when the CNRP was piling pressure on the ruling Cambodian People’s Party over its perceived failings over the nation’s border with Vietnam.

As the workshop wound down, the bulk of the supporters and party officials left the building. Before long, only a few supporters were left, among them Nheb and Sokhoeun.

That is in stark contrast to the weeks following May 26 when upwards of several hundred supporters camped out at headquarters, concerned that their acting party leader would be arrested. The numbers ebbed and flowed, rising when Sokha skipped a court summons or when the CNRP was collecting thumbprints for a petition seeking the intervention of King Norodom Sihamoni.

Party spokesman Yim Sovann attributed the deflated attendance to a focus on upcoming voter registration rather than a drop in morale amongst the ranks. But he did concede that it would not matter in the event of Sokha’s arrest.

“No matter how many people are at the headquarters, if the authorities want to arrest him, there is nothing [the supporters] can do,” he adds.

Nheb admits that her parents and other relatives are worried about her decision “to protect Sokha”; however, she doesn’t fear facing the authorities.

“If the government says Kem Sokha is free, I will be happy,” she said as she prepared to head home after another day’s vigil. “But, if the police come to arrest him, I won’t be afraid. I won’t run away.”

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