Cambodian opposition member Meach Sovannara gestures as he speaks to the media with other activists at their house in Phnom Penh on Aug. 28 after they were released by royal pardon. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
Three years ago, a Cambodian court found Meach Sovannara guilty of insurrection and sentenced him to a draconian 20 years in prison. On Aug. 27, he suddenly received a royal pardon along with 13 other members and supporters of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
"I'm glad I'm free, but it was injustice that I was sentenced to 20 years in prison for a five-minute talk," Meach Sovannara said after his release on Aug. 28.
In less than two weeks, 19 political prisoners were released in Cambodia. Some were former CNRP lawmakers but others included CNRP land rights activist Tep Vanny, political commentator Kim Sok and Radio Free Asia reporters Uon Chhin and Yoeung Sothearin.
Observers believe that all were released to decrease political tensions and to limit international pressure on Cambodia's ruling party after it gained a controversial landslide victory in the recent election.
At Buddhist pagoda Wat Chas, where the released prisoners received a blessing from Buddhist monks, Meach Sovannara thanked Prime Minister Hun Sen for requesting a royal pardon for him and his colleagues.
The former CNRP chief of communication and media didn't comment on why he received a royal pardon. Instead he said that he believes Hun Sen, who has been ruling Cambodia with an iron fist since 1985, is a smart man who is flexible in playing the political game. "As we know, Cambodia's top politicians won't end their political direction. They close one path and then open another one to negotiate on how to keep the country united," he said.
Others are less vague about the motives for the mass release of political prisoners. Pointing out that the government has been under international pressure since last month's election, in which the ruling Cambodian People's Party claims to have won all 125 parliamentary seats, they believe activists and opposition members have been released to decrease tensions.
Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager of Cambodian human rights group LICADHO, said the government doesn't want to show a bad image to the international community.
"Instead they want to show that Khmer and Khmer are united. The European Union and the United States have already put sanctions on Cambodia, and the EU warns that it can suspend Cambodia from the EBA if it doesn't respect human rights and if it doesn't release political prisoners," Am Sam Ath told ucanews.com.
The EBA (Everything But Arms) is a trade scheme that lets the world's least developed countries export goods duty-free to the EU. Cambodia's economy relies heavily on the export of garments to Europe, so suspension from the EBA could have a major and long-lasting impact.
Former CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An, pictured after his release on Aug. 28, says it's time for the Khmer people to be united. (Photo by Sineat Yon)
Kim Sok, who was released from prison on Aug. 17, said the ruling party hopes that with the release of political prisoners the international community will recognize Cambodia's election results. Several countries, including the U.S., Canada and Australia, described the elections as flawed and dismissed the results.
"To now release many political prisoners is just an attempt to make the country look good. It's a political strategy to compromise the political situation," Kim Sok told ucanews.com near notorious Prey Sar Prison, where most political prisoners are held.
The political analyst, who was locked up at Prey Sar for 18 months, pointed out that from September Cambodia will be one of the vice-presidents of the United Nations General Assembly. "The ruling party is setting out its strategy to participate in that. If they don't release political prisoners, they have no right to go there and to talk about political freedom or about human rights and press freedom."
Kim Sok doubts how successful this strategy will be. "I don't think it's possible for the international community to recognize the election results. It was all prepared and run by one party. I think foreign countries have enough evidence to conclude that the Cambodian people won't accept it."
The Cambodian government denies that royal pardons have been given after international pressure. Referring to the recently released 14 CNRP members, Cambodian People's Party spokesman Sok Eysan said there were three important reasons to grant them freedom. "First of all, these men were jailed for some amount of their sentence, so our top government official has the right to request a royal pardon. Second, they pleaded guilty and wrote pardon letters. Third, the government wants to be merciful with them."
At Wat Chas, Um Sam An was happy that the government decided to show him mercy. The former CNRP lawmaker was sentenced to 30 months in prison in October 2016 after he criticized the government over a sensitive border policy with Vietnam.
Now that he's free, Um Sam An hopes for reconciliation. "It's time for the Khmer people to be united and to join hands to develop and protect our country. The political climate is still complicated, but I think that will improve when we gain more understanding."
Just like numerous Cambodians, Um Sam An is relieved that political prisoners are being released. But the man with the highest profile, popular CNRP president Kem Sokha, is still behind bars. He was arrested on suspicion of treason and has been in prison since last year September. His case has been heavily criticized by the international community and has caused great fear among other opposition politicians and activists.
"I hope Kem Sokha will be released soon as well," Um Sam An said. "But we may not all be released at the same time. I think they will release us one by one."
Hun Sen announced on Aug. 29 that the opposition leader won't receive a pardon yet. "How can he be released if he is not officially convicted yet? He hasn't been convicted of a crime to be pardoned for it," Hun Sen said during a meeting with garment workers.
Kim Sok told ucanews.com that it doesn't make sense to keep Kem Sokha behind bars. "It looks bad because all the other CNRP members have already been released. If they don't release him, the international community is likely to have a strong reaction against the government."
* Additional reporting by Ate Hoekstra