The Cambodian Broadcasting Network, which carried the interview that landed opposition leader Kem Sokha behind bars, shuttered its Phnom Penh offices on Monday, according to CBN President Cameron Sar.
Sar made no bones about the closure being linked to fears over the current heated political climate, particularly with regards to independent media. The closure of the Australian-based media network’s Cambodia office, staffed by volunteers, comes on the heels of the shutdown of the Cambodia Daily and at least 15 independent radio stations – not to mention Sokha’s midnight arrest for “treason” after a 2013 speech was circulated on social media.
“This is an old video clip that CBN film[ed] a long time ago,” Sar said in a message.
“This is a way they just wanted to catch him [and] also blame on the news channel. One b[l]ow [to] hit two animal[s].”
Sar said CBN would remain closed in Cambodia at least until next year. “Our members are frighten[ed] there . . . Now people inside Cambodia are all scared to speak up,” he said.
The offending video clip of Sokha is 13 minutes long – one in a four-part series – but an edited version with English subtitles and chords from John Lennon’s Imagine was swiftly released by the Press and Quick Reaction Unit (PQRU) as an explanation for Sokha’s arrest.
In it, two segments of the longer video have been spliced together. Sokha says he has visited the US at the government’s request every year since 1993 to learn about the “democratisation process” and that “they decided” he should step aside from politics to create change in Cambodia.
“They said if we want to change the leadership, we cannot fight the top. Before changing the top level, we need to uproot the lower one. We need to change the lower level first. It is a political strategy in a democratic country,” he said.
“And, the USA that has assisted me, they asked me to take the model from Yugoslavia, Serbia, where they can change the dictator [Slobodan] Milosevic,” he continues, referring to the former Serbian and Yugoslavian leader who resigned amid popular protests following disputed elections, and died while on trial for war crimes.
“You know Milosevic had a huge numbers of tanks. But they changed things by using this strategy, and they take this experience for me to implement in Cambodia. But no one knew about this.”
“However, since we are now reaching at this stage, today I must tell you about this strategy. We will have more to continue and we will succeed.”
The PQRU clip then skips three minutes, in which Sokha talks about “not making noise” and avoiding self-destructive violence. During the excised segment, he also appears to distance himself from the Serbian approach.
“Some people said, ‘Why do you wait, because so many people support you and you can continue your protest?’ Yes we know, but I ask whether we should take our head to hit against a tank?”
The PQRU video, however, picks back up with the lines: “I do not do anything at my own will. There experts, professors at universities in Washington, DC, Montreal, Canada, hired by the Americans in order to advise me on the strategy to change the dictator leader in Cambodia.”
Though the government’s video appeared to equate the statements with treason, Grassroots Democracy Party spokesman Sam Inn said he had seen only seen a short, edited version of Sokha’s speech, and “even in the short video there is no clear indication about treason”.
While Sokha seemed to paint himself as “chosen” by the West, Inn said there was “nothing wrong” with grassroots activism.
“This is a part of democratic process,” he said. “To me it is normal for some people to advise him how to mobilise the people in an effective way.”
Additional reporting by Chhay Channyda and Mech Dara