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Kem Sokha dreams of serving Cambodia's people

Despite his house arrest, the popular opposition leader continues to hope for reconciliation

Ate Hoekstra, Phnom Penh

Ate Hoekstra, Phnom Penh

Updated: September 11, 2019 03:27 AM GMT
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Kem Sokha dreams of serving Cambodia's people

Kem Sokha casts his vote at a polling station in Phnom Penh on June 4, 2017. Later that month he was arrested and accused of treason. His daughters have not been allowed to see him since that day. (AFP photo)

Kem Monovithya hasn’t seen her father since June 24, 2017. The Cambodian woman doesn’t want to focus on that fact too much, even though she has no idea when she will be allowed to see him again. “I’d rather be doing something effective than allowing myself to be saddened by this situation,” she said.

Exactly one year ago, on Sept. 10, 2018, Kem Sokha was placed under what is widely regarded as de facto house arrest. Sokha is one of the most popular politicians in Cambodia. Together with co-founder Sam Rainsy, he almost led the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to victory in 2013, when the party won 55 of the 123 seats in parliament. Four years later, his party won over 43 percent of the votes during the commune elections.

Sokha, 66, is also one of the main challengers to Hun Sen, the authoritarian leader who has ruled Cambodia since 1985. About two years ago, following the commune elections, he was accused of treason after a video from 2013 came to light in which the opposition leader tells supporters that he has received advice from experts in the United States on how to win power. After spending one year in prison, he was released from jail and put under house arrest. His trial on a treason charge has yet to start. His party has been dissolved by the Supreme Court.

Monovithya said it was a "barbaric political move" to arrest her father and keep him in detention. “If the laws or legal procedures play any part in this, he would not have been arrested to begin with.”

She told ucanews.com that the politician hasn’t even been offered the medical attention he requires. “He needed surgery on his left shoulder before his arrest. To date, he still has not received any attention from any medical professional on the matter. We have no way of knowing the condition of his shoulder without X-rays and a diagnosis from a qualified medical professional.”

Wider crackdown on criticism

The case against the opposition leader is often seen as part of a wider crackdown on criticism in Cambodia. Among other things, this has led to the closure of dozens of radio stations and media outlets, the dissolution of the CNRP and a ban from politics for 118 elected CNRP officials.

“The result is an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that severely undermines the ability to engage in the necessary dialogues required to foster a healthy democracy,” Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), told ucanews.com.

Being under pressure is far from new for Sokha, who has been politically active since the early 1990s. He was accused of crimes several times before his arrest in 2017. In 2016 he made headlines when he refused to leave the CNRP headquarters for several months after police tried to detain him because he didn’t show up in court to be questioned in a controversial case about an alleged affair. That case only came to an end when the Cambodian king gave him a royal pardon.

Now that he’s under house arrest with no release in sight, the opposition leader spends most of his time reading the news, meditating, exercising and growing vegetables around his home.

“He’s an optimist and a problem solver. He always has been,” Monovithya told ucanews.com from Washington D.C.. “He is looking forward to continuing to serve the people again in the near future and that Cambodians can come together by putting our country first.”

But the price for Sokha’s political dreams is high. A court has ordered that he’s not allowed to speak to the media, foreigners or CNRP officials. This also makes it impossible for him to meet his daughters, Monovithya and Samathida. Both are involved with the CNRP, a party that Hun Sen considers an enemy of the state.

Monovithya, who is working hard to campaign for the release of her father, said the situation has only made her and her family stronger.

Request for release

The United Nations, human rights groups and Western governments have repeatedly asked for Sokha’s release. But despite the pressure, the controversies and the small amount of presented evidence against him, Cambodian authorities continue to present the opposition leader as a traitor. Chin Malin, spokesman of Cambodia’s Ministry of Justice, recently told Radio Free Asia that the charges will not be dropped unless Sokha’s legal team presents “new and convincing evidence” that proves his innocence.

CCHR director Sopheap told ucanews.com that it can be questioned if Sokha has been given his right to the presumption of innocence. “The dissolution of the CNRP by a widely criticised Supreme Court decision, and public statements made by government officials concerning his guilt, contravene the duty established under international human rights law, of officials to refrain from prejudging the outcome of a trial, including by abstaining from making public statements affirming the guilt of the accused,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sokha continues to hope for reconciliation in his beloved country. Speaking through Facebook, he appealed to the Cambodian people to stop viewing each other as enemies. “I know that as a democrat and an opposition leader, I will face untold amounts of danger and suffering. But I ask that my supporters adhere to the principles of non-violence despite my detention,” he wrote.

Those words are typical of a man who has spent so much of his time going out to meet his supporters and listen to their everyday struggles.

To no longer be able to do so has been "extraordinarily difficult" for her father, Monovithya said. “For the last decade, he used to travel on 20 days or so out of a month to be at the grass roots with supporters. With the escalating repression, he is gravely concerned about the people’s safety before anything else.”

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