When most recall 2016, they will remember an epoch-changing year in which Donald Trump was elected US president, the UK decided to leave the European Union and the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 106 years.
Yet for deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, the memories may focus instead on the white plaster walls of his party’s headquarters, where he sat for six months and silently defied Prime Minister Hun Sen to make good on his aggresive public threats of arrest.
Others around him may recall the year as daring proof of a theory long rumoured but rarely tested: That Hun Sen, when faced with a flexible opposition, plays the part of the strongman, but when faced with a strong opposition, can also prove flexible.
Indeed, after almost a year of the threats to imprison Sokha “forever”, and shows of force that included drive-bys by balaclava-clad soldiers and visits from Air Force helicopters and Navy boats, the premier on Friday suddenly decided that Sokha should walk free.
It was perhaps no coincidence that a Supreme Court ruling later this month was expected to uphold Sokha’s five-month sentence, a fact that would have meant an end to the appeals process, and with it the ruling party’s stated rationale for not arresting Sokha.
“It was now or never . . . but not never, because they did not want to put him in prison and make him into a martyr,” said Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank. “A deal had to be struck before the Supreme Court, because then they have to arrest Kem Sokha.”
By so visibly forcing a 38-year-old authoritarian government fearful of declining popularity to make that choice, Sokha also managed to do what opposition leader Sam Rainsy could not bring himself to do: risk personal safety in pursuit of a goal.
Rainsy now faces more than two decades in jail if convicted in every new criminal case tacked on since his decision last year to once again flee to France to escape a two-year prison sentence. (He was last month banned from returning.)
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said that he did not expect there would be a royal pardon for Rainsy soon, and the reason for the different approaches from the prime minister came down to the vastly contrasting situations of Sokha and Rainsy.
“Firstly, Kem Sokha is in Cambodia. That’s one. Secondly, it was due process of the courts. That’s been done, so that gives a way for the prime minister to request a royal pardon for him,” Siphan said.
“For Sam Rainsy, it’s completely different. He never shows up,” he said, adding that Sokha had also helped himself in writing to Hun Sen for a royal pardon before his looming arrest. “If Kem Sokha went to the Supreme Court, the prime minister could not stop it.”
Rainsy has not responded to requests for comment since Sokha was pardoned on Friday. Other opposition party officials, including CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann and senior lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang, have not answered telephone calls.
The contrast between the leaders has not gone unnoticed by observers since Sokha allegedly refused Rainsy’s request that he join him in exile – as recounted earlier this year by Prince Sisowath Thomico – a move that would have left the CNRP decapitated in Cambodia.
It has, in particular, not gone unnoticed by the Cambodian population in the US – a militantly anti-Hun Sen crowd that forms the financial backbone of the CNRP, and which has over the past year celebrated Sokha’s defiant approach as one that would lead to better results.
“There is an obvious contrast to the different responses between the two opposition leaders, but what this shows is that the CNRP as a whole remained defiant and righteous,” said Veasna Roeun, vice president of the US-based Cambodia-America Alliance.
“In the end, Kem Sokha and the opposition party stood their ground, which seemed to throw the ruling party off balance,” Roeun added. “If there is any lesson to be learned here, it is that such sacrifice can pay dividends when the world is watching.”
Kem Monovithya, the CNRP’s deputy director of public affairs and Sokha’s eldest daughter, said she believed the lesson in the events of the past six months was that the opposition party will not achieve what it wants against the CPP if it flees from personal risk.
“What the CNRP can learn is the road to victory is never a smooth one. Some level of risks need to be taken, some sacrifices need to be made to overcome challenges thrown our way,” Monovithya said.
“What’s important is to never leave the fighting ring and keep our focus: positive change through democratic elections,” she added, stressing firmness against the CPP. “We can’t control what our counterpart plans, we can only steadfastly respond to it with resilience.”
But the lesson may find few students in the factionalised CNRP, with Sokha’s willingness to openly test how flexible Hun Sen can be coming from a position of credibility – he went to prison in 2005 for “defaming” the premier. The tactic is also unlikely to ever be matched by Rainsy, said Virak of the Future Forum.
“Sam Rainsy is a guy who would not go prison,” Virak said. “He talks about facing the regime, sacrificing himself and going to prison, and the politics he chooses is confronting the government. But he chooses that for his followers, and not for himself.”