Pi Seth, 32, saw the news on the television at the same time he saw it on his Facebook feed: CNRP leader Kem Sokha being taken from his home in the middle of the night, his arms behind his back and his face lit up by the flash of a camera.
Suddenly, Seth said, he was overcome by fear.
“I’m afraid that democracy is going backwards in Cambodia,” he said while waiting for customers inside his tuk-tuk yesterday afternoon. “Democracy to me is when we respect the people’s decision – when the people choose for themselves.”
Now, Seth said, the political climate makes him think that the future he imagined for his 5-year-old daughter is more out of reach than before.
And as for the allegations of treason now being levelled against the opposition chief, Seth said, he and his relatives agree: “We absolutely don’t believe it,” he said.
In the two days since Sokha was arrested at his Tuol Kork home, endorsements of the midnight arrest of Sokha have rolled in from every corner of the Cambodian People’s Party-led government.
But on the streets of Phnom Penh yesterday, among tuk-tuk drivers, security guards and clothing vendors, there was only confusion and unease about the CPP’s official explanation of Sokha’s arrest.
“Look how many top leaders of political parties have been arrested,” said So Thirith, 42, a former soldier from Phnom Penh who works as a driver for a jewellery shop. “I don’t see any fairness.”
Thirith said he used to get his news from Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. Now, he’s been forced to turn to Facebook after the government recently shut down more than 17 news stations that aired RFA and VOA for allegedly violating their contracts.
Thirith said he watched the video clip of the 2013 speech that Sokha gave to the Australia-based Cambodia Broadcasting Network, which the government posted online Sunday as evidence of Sokha’s purported treason. But Thirith remained unconvinced that it amounted to a betrayal of Cambodia.
“What they are doing is wrong, but we have no freedom to express it,” Thirith said. “We just keep it inside.”
Pich, a 23-year-old monk who would only give his first name for fear of retribution at the pagoda where he lives and studies, called Sokha’s arrest “unjustifiable”.
He said he also listened to the video clip of Sokha’s speech and couldn’t find anything to fault in it.
“When CPP’s people say something, there is no consequence,” Pich said.
Indeed, in the run-up to June’s commune elections, numerous ruling party officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, repeatedly warned of violence in the event of an opposition victory. Defence Minister Tea Banh went so far as to threaten to “smash the teeth” of opposition supporters should they protest against a CPP win.
“But if a different party says something, they get arrested or the government attacks them,” Pich added.
Many people interviewed yesterday said the arrest made them more fearful of broadcasting their political views on social media or to anyone outside of their family and closest friends.
Srey Kunlen, a 47-year-old petrol station attendant and juice vendor from Kratie province, said she became angry when her children showed her the news on Facebook on Sunday.
Counting neat folds of 100-riel bills outside a military hospital on Preah Sisowath Quay yesterday afternoon, Kunlen said she has supported Sokha since he became a party leader.
“But no matter how much I love him, I won’t protest, because I’m afraid the hospital will not let me sell here if I support CNRP,” Kunlen said.
Asked to describe their feelings about the 2018 national election, many Phnom Penh residents expressed resignation.
Srey Oun, a 35-year-old jeans vendor in Central Market, said she still plans to vote because she cares about the economy and employment.
But “without the opposition, it’s not fair”, Oun said. “Without them, it’s like there’s no need to go vote.”
Pharmaceutical representative Lang Dy, 30, said he was sceptical that Sokha intended to betray the country. Still, he fears that Sokha’s arrest may have a chilling effect on others in the upcoming election.
“We can’t go against them,” Dy said. “Whatever we do, we still can’t win anyway.”