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Six months on, government says Kem Sokha’s arrest a matter of ‘life or death’ for Cambodia

Foreign Affairs minister Prak Sokhonn [left] speaking at an event today in Phnom Penh.
Foreign Affairs minister Prak Sokhonn [left] speaking at an event today in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

Six months on, government says Kem Sokha’s arrest a matter of ‘life or death’ for Cambodia

Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry criticised on Friday what it characterises as “endless” foreign interference in the country, while seemingly pointing to violent rights abuses in Myanmar and the Philippines to ward off criticism of a political crackdown at home.

Cambodia has faced increased international scrutiny in recent weeks, with the United States cutting off some aid, Germany curtailing preferential visa treatment for Cambodian government members and Australian politicians lambasting Prime Minister Hun Sen for his violent rhetoric.

The international rebukes have largely been in response to a wide-ranging crackdown on political freedom in Cambodia, most notably the September 4 arrest of Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha and the subsequent forced dissolution of his party.

In the Foreign Ministry’s annual report, released on Friday, the government contended that all of the legal measures taken by the state were a matter of “life or death” for the nation.

Sokha’s arrest and other political manoeuvres were needed to “dodge outside interference”, prevent attempts to “impose the foreign will that is opposed with our national interests” and also to prevent Cambodia from falling “into the dark world era”, according to the report.

Even though economic sanctions have not yet been implemented, “some political pressures are taking place”, former Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said, referring to the severance of some US aid.

The ministry said there was a vast difference between human rights abuses in Myanmar and the Philippines – where there have been campaigns of ethnic cleansing and extrajudicial killings, respectively – and Cambodia, and condemned Western governments’ criticisms of the Kingdom. “Our issue is completely an internal issue, but why do some superpowers interfere into the internal affair?” Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn asked. He also criticised opposition politicians abroad for acting as “propagandists”.

The singling out of Myanmar and Philippines contradicted Prime Minister Hun Sen’s previous support in the face of international pressure. In 2016, he name-dropped Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte as someone he consulted with about Cambodia’s drug problem, saying he modelled the Kingdom’s response on the Philippines’ controversial war on drugs, though he did not endorse extrajudicial killings. And he has said the Rohingya crisis was an internal affair of a sovereign nation.

Paul Chambers, lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said it was strategic for Hun Sen to reference the “massacres” in Myanmar and the Philippines in a bid to maintain some legitimacy for his own actions.

“It is certainly convenient for the Hun Sen regime to turn on its Asean partners when it sees fit because Hun Sen is trying to drum up nationalism as the July 2018 election approaches,” he said.

The Foreign Ministry’s justifications for the crackdown coincide with a call from Southeast Asian lawmakers for the “immediate and unconditional release” of Sokha on the cusp of the six-month anniversary of his arrest.

The president of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party was arrested on September 4 and charged with “treason” over remarks he made during a 2013 speech in Australia about receiving career advice and assistance about democratic change from the US.

On Friday, the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights Chairperson Charles Santiago said Sokha’s “continued detention is an outrageous abuse of power by Cambodia’s ruling party”. “These trumped-up charges should never have been brought in the first place,” he said.

Sokha’s appeals for bail have been denied by the Cambodian courts. He has since requested release for medical treatment abroad. Sokha’s predecessor, Sam Rainsy, said the government’s increasing restrictions on freedom were responsible for plunging Cambodia into a darker state and that the international community wouldn’t be fooled by their hypocrisy.

“From George Orwell to Stalin to the Nazis to Pol Pot to present Hun Sen, words in their world do not have the same meaning as in our current vocabulary,” he said.

Former CNRP deputy in exile Mu Sochua stressed that in a democracy, “change of leadership by the people doesn’t mean toppling the government”.

“On the eve [of] a major election to determine the fate of the nation in the next years, these freedoms must be upheld.”

Updated 14:30pm, Monday March 5 2018

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