Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Who's afraid of Kem Sokha?

Who's afraid of Kem Sokha?

Who's afraid of Kem Sokha?


Kem Sokha, born in 1953 in Takeo province, says he knew he wanted to be a

National Assembly member by the age of nine. He finally made it in 1993, as a

member of the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP), and went on to chair the

assembly's Human Rights Commission for the next five years. Before this, Sokha

studied law in Phnom Penh, earned a post-graduate degree in industrial chemistry

in the former Czechoslovakia, and worked in Cambodian breweries and distilleries

in his field of chemical expertise - making whiskey and beer.

He's also

brewed up controversy. After the 1997 coup, Sokha was evacuated from Phnom Penh

on a Thai emergency flight. After rumors of an arrest order in 1998, he sought

asylum inside the US Embassy in Phnom Penh for 50 days. In 2002, citing a lack

of independence and government transparency, he resigned from the Human Rights

Commission, Funcinpec and the Assembly and formed the Cambodian Center for Human


In December 2005 Sokha was arrested and jailed on charges of

criminal defamation brought against him by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Since his

release and royal pardon in January, relations between Sokha and Hun Sen have

improved, but a vociferous new critic has emerged: the opposition Sam Rainsy

Party has blasted Sokha and the CCHR in the media and pledged to boycott its

public forums. An SRP statement on April 2 claims that "Mr Kem Sokha speaks more

about himself and his 'democratic achievements' than about human rights..." It

also states that "he attacks the SRP in a more and more virulent manner because

he apparently aims at conquering the SRP electorate for his future political


Charles McDermid spoke with him about politics, activists and


How did you manage to get an education in the Czech Republic?

I went on a scholarship from the government. It was in 1980 at the end

of the Khmer Rouge era. I heard they would provide scholarships so I went to

interview and won. But when they checked my background and saw my conduct with

the resistance, I thought they would change their mind. I had to wait one year

while they followed me and watched my activities. Finally, I went in October

1981. I went for five years and earned my diploma as a Master of Science. But

when I came back the government said my background was not good so they sent me

to Sihanoukville to rebuild a brewery. Finally the Minister of Industry sent me

back to Phnom Penh. I worked at a distillery six kilometers outside Phnom Penh

and developed a formula for Cambodian whiskey.

Are you a politician or

an activist?

An activist. In 1993 I discussed with my party [the

Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party] that I wanted to work on human rights. And

when I joined Funcinpec I said that I wanted to work on human rights issues. My

mission at CCHR is to inform people at the grassroots level of their rights -

empower the people and inform them and educate them. We want to change the

culture of the people and help them get what they want. People should know that

they can control their own lives, that they are the boss. Our people think the

leader is the boss - I want to change that.

What were you thinking

during the time of your arrest in December? What were the reasons behind


I think at that time that the government made the wrong decision. It

was a mistake of the prime minister. For two years they've been worried about

demonstrations, since the Thai riots. But when they signed the border agreement

with Vietnam, they began to worry that people would organize. That's why they

arrested the border activists. When they arrested Mam Sonando and Rong Chhun, I

asked the NGOs and activists to protest to the government. We called on the

Alliance of Freedom of Expression to mobilize the NGOs. They were worried that I

would organize the people and lead demonstrations against the government. They

decided to arrest me so they charged me about the December 10 Human Rights Day.

But they let me hear the rumor that they would arrest me because they wanted me

to leave the country. The warrant for arrest was issued on December 28, but they

didn't arrest me until December 31. When they knew I wouldn't leave the country,

they decided to arrest me.

How did you spend your time in Prey Sar?

Mostly, I would take some time to exercise and talk with other prisoners

like Mam Sonando and Yang Virak. Other prisoners would come to tell me about

their cases and about injustice and court corruption. They told me how the

courts and police take money from them. The robbers told me they work with the

police and the drug traffickers too. I learned a lot in there; I could a write a

book about it.

Did you agree to any compromises, or agree to change your

work, in order to gain release?

No, I came out stronger. I will hold the

public forums openly and with open dialogue. I will continue. I cannot keep

quiet and I won't change my attitude.

Why is the SRP claiming that you will

start a political party?

I don't know. I've said in public a hundred

times already: an NGO is better than politics. I have no plan to enter politics.

The SRP should think about the problems of the people, not me. They should worry

about reforming their own party and not worry about me. I won't go into politics

and I don't have time to explain that to [Sam Rainsy]. Before, he had many

problems. He attacked the government, the prime minister and Funcinpec. Now he

has free time and he needs someone to attack. If he wants to give criticism,

it's up to him, but I won't go into politics.

What do you think of the

SRP decision to boycott CCHR forums?

It is the wrong decision. I think he

will go back and he will change his mind. Many people join, then they think if

they boycott, our forums cannot work. Now [Sam Rainsy] is gone but the people

still need the public forums. I appeal to them to rejoin the civic forums again.

[SRP parliamentarian] Son Chhay told me they will rejoin soon and SRP members

will come back soon. It was the wrong decision.

What about CPP's decision

to join the forums? What role will they play?

That depends on the prime

minister. If he moves, the party moves. The party depends on the leader. If he

wants to join, he'll order them to join. This is the decision from the prime


How would you describe the relationship between the ruling

coalition government and the opposition?

Nothing is clear now. The

coalition is not clear and the opposition is not clear. The coalition between

the CPP and Funcinpec is not clear. The CPP [members] do what they want; they

don't discuss it. The opposition is not clear either, because the opposition is

closer now to the CPP than its partner. Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy are much closer

then Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh.

Having been jailed by one, and now

boycotted by the other, do you think the government and the SRP are afraid of


I've heard that Funcinpec and the CPP are afraid of Kem Sokha. I

don't know why the SRP is afraid - they should worry about their own party.

Maybe they are worried that the people trust me. I tell the truth; maybe they

don't want me to tell the people the truth.


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