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.
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. 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.