The World Must Not Forget Kem Sokha, Symbol of Democratic Change in Cambodia

On this International Human Rights Day, I call on the international community not to forget Cambodia. While the country may not be making headlines, the silence surrounding a suffering people does not diminish their pain or negate the help they need.

From 1975 to 1979, the Cambodian people endured genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot. Nearly one-third of a population of 7 million was massacred in total silence.

In this 21st century, this forgotten nation continues to suffer under another tyranny led by former Khmer Rouge apparatchiks and their descendants. This kind of continuity is reminiscent of North Korea, which is ruled with an iron fist by three generations of the Kim dynasty.

In Cambodia, the Hun dynasty has been confirmed, with Hun Sen, the previous prime minister who ruled the country for 38 years, being replaced by his son Hun Manet in August 2023. Hun Sen actually managed to do ‘better’ than Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. It’s not just Hun Manet who replaced his father. All the former ministers and dignitaries of the Hun Sen regime were simultaneously replaced by their respective sons, sons-in-law, nephews or other close and younger relatives. This unprecedented succession move under a communist or neo-communist regime can only take place in a context of worsening human rights.

While the international news media may not highlight Cambodia in the same way as North Korea, due to the nuclear blackmail exerted by the Pyongyang regime, domestically, the same oppressive atmosphere exists over the Cambodian and North Korean peoples.

The foremost human right is the right to life. Although large-scale massacres are no longer occurring in Cambodia, extrajudicial executions persist. Since founding the first opposition party of the post-Khmer Rouge era in 1995, over eighty of my colleagues and supporters have been assassinated without the authorities bothering to conduct any investigation. I, myself, have escaped several assassination attempts. Unfortunately, many journalists, unionists, human rights defenders, environmental advocates and critical political analysts were not as fortunate in avoiding the premeditated deaths assigned to them.

Concerning other human rights such as freedom of expression, the situation in Cambodia is not much better than in North Korea. In both countries, silence dictated by fear is presented as peace and stability. The word ‘justice’ is practically banned from the Phnom Penh government’s vocabulary because it could have a dangerous meaning for the political and financial elite.

If there is a symbolic name to evoke injustice in Cambodia, it is Kem Sokha, the president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the only true opposition party. He was sentenced to 27 years in prison last March for ‘treason.’ The real reason for Kem Sokha’s conviction is the fear the CNRP instills in Hun Sen. The CNRP, co-founded by Kem Sokha and myself in 2012, was the first party to unite all democratic forces in order to end dictatorship. It came close to achieving its goal in the 2013 national elections, winning almost half of the votes despite serious irregularities in favor of the ruling party.

This was a massive surprise and a political earthquake for the regime, as Hun Sen knew that in any honest elections, he would lose power. For Hun Sen, whose power primarily means impunity for all his past crimes, it was imperative to destroy the CNRP by any means to ensure his own survival. He first targeted me as the then-leader of the party. Using a court under his control, he had me convicted of countless ‘political crimes.’ Then, starting in 2016, he had a series of laws passed by a National Assembly also under his control to allow the dissolution of any political party led by a ‘convict.’

The aim was to eliminate the CNRP from future elections as long as I remained at the helm. To ensure the survival of my party, I resigned from its presidency in February 2017 and was replaced by Kem Sokha, who was the party’s vice-president until then.

Hun Sen did not react immediately and preferred to wait and see the results of the local elections in June 2017, probably thinking that the CNRP’s score without my presence — I was forced into exile from 2015 — would be less impressive than in the 2013 national elections. Once again, there was shock and a political earthquake for the regime as the CNRP, once again, garnered almost half of the votes and was poised to take control of the largest provinces and cities in the kingdom. Panic set in for Hun Sen, especially in light of the forthcoming national elections scheduled for July 2018. With such momentum, the CNRP could only sweep him from power.

One can understand Hun Sen’s decision to prevent at all costs the CNRP from participating in the 2018 national elections. He had very little time left to do so. He needed to immediately go after Kem Sokha, just as he had come after me before my resignation in February 2017. He had Kem Sokha arbitrarily arrested in the night of Sept. 2-3 of the same year, levelling the grotesque pretext of ‘treason’ against him. This fallacious accusation was the pretext for Hun Sen to have a servile ‘supreme court’ pronounce the dissolution of the CNRP on Nov. 16, 2017.

A few months later, in the July 2018 elections, the party of Hun Sen, no longer having to compete with the CNRP, unsurprisingly won 100% of the seats in the National Assembly.

While Kem Sokha cannot leave Cambodia following his recent conviction, I, on the other hand, cannot enter the country because Hun Sen has proclaimed that he would stop me by using “machine guns and missiles.” At the same time, he has reinforced his legal and judicial arsenal against me, getting me sentenced to life imprisonment in October 2022 for advocating for the rights of ethnic minorities in Cambodia. I was accused of intending to cede national territories to Cambodian indigenous populations, whereas I had simply promised to respect their rights as outlined in the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Hun Sen continues to fear a resurgence of the CNRP, which he could only dissolve on paper but which continues to embody hope for a democratic change for the Cambodian people. Hun Sen, who continues to pull the strings behind his inexperienced son Hun Manet, is desperately trying to prevent the unity of democratic forces represented by the alliance between Kem Sokha and me.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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