By Erin Handley
The Phnom Penh Post
Asia News Network
The arrest itself was swift, but it was a long time coming.
The midnight detention of Cambodia’s opposition leader Kem Sokha bore all the hallmarks of a long-planned raid.
No less coordinated was the series of attacks on human rights defenders, threats to civil society and censuring of independent media launched over the past 18 months, culminating in so-called “leaks” of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that were Sokha’s undoing.
For analysts, the arrest of Sokha was a shock, but not wholly unexpected. It was, however, a blow to the final shreds of hope for a free, fair and democratic vote at next year’s crucial elections.
Five parties ‘beheaded’
If Sokha steps aside, Cambodia’s opposition parties will have lost five leaders since February – three to arrest. With political rivals beheaded, analysts are raising serious doubts about the legitimacy of Cambodia’s so-called multiparty democracy.
Sokha had narrowly avoided arrest 15 months ago. In May of 2016, heavily armed police descended on his National Rescue Party headquarters. They wanted to arrest Sokha, then deputy to self-exiled leader Sam Rainsy, for ignoring a second court summons in a politically tinged “prostitution” case. The force left empty-handed, their guns slung over their shoulders. Sokha spent almost six months holed up in the party offices, evading arrest. He was eventually handed a royal pardon in December, at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
It appeared then that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party under Hun Sen, who has wielded his power over the Kingdom for almost 33 years, had made its point. Sokha was given a reprieve, but the threat hung in the air.
But in the early hours of Sunday morning, there were no polite court summonses that might tip off Sokha. He had dodged arrest before; it appears authorities took steps to ensure it would not happen again.
There were clues embedded in the increasingly heated atmosphere in Cambodia over the past month. In early August, Khmer National United Party president and former defence minister Nhek Bun Chhay was arrested. Then the pardoned “terrorist” Sourn Serey Ratha, head of the Khmer Power Party, was put behind bars.
Crackdown on media, NGOs
Along with the moves against politicians came the shuttering of independent media outlets and the expulsion of an NGO, the National Democratic Institute. Outlandish conspiracy theories – mainly centred on the opposition and foreign interference – began surfacing anonymously on social media, only to be spread by government mouthpiece Fresh News.
For political analyst Ou Virak, the detention of Sokha, this time on accusations of treason, is an ominous sign.
“This is the turning point. I think it’s very, very difficult to believe a fair election [will take place],” he said.
“I think the CPP will win the 2018 election without having to resort to any of this. It could be a miscalculation … I think they’re overcompensating.”
For both Virak and fellow analyst Meas Ny, the biggest question is whether the treason charge will ultimately see the CNRP dissolved and barred from contesting next year’s election.
Dismantling of the party would be possible under amendments to the Law on Political Parties – rushed through parliament earlier this year – which prohibit those with criminal convictions from holding party leadership positions.
Virak said he saw “no desire” among the ruling CPP for the CNRP to be dissolved, noting that the international community would be more likely to accept the result if the opposition contested the election.
Ny added that dissolving the party would take Cambodia further down the path of a one-party system.
“The CPP might still want the CNRP to contest, but [they] have to undermine the political process,” he said. “It could be a case that [the arrest of] Kem Sokha does not affect the continuing political process of the CNRP, which will continue to struggle and be part of the opposition until the election, but the election will never be fair and just. My concern is that there would be some people rising up and demonstrating [which] could lead to the government using armed forces to control, and there would be no election.”
Ny added the Sokha arrest appeared to be a “step-by-step” operation, saying that when attempts to discredit his party’s reputation with a sex scandal failed, the political stakes were raised to treason and arrest.
Human Rights Watch’s John Sifton slammed the arrest as “extremely disturbing” and “a setback for democracy in Cambodia”. “The government’s charges lack credibility, given its long record of misusing its legal system to silence or intimidate critics and political opponents. For 33 years, Hun Sen has used violence, threats, corruption and bogus legal charges to stay in power, and in the last year has been intensifying his attacks on civil society and the political opposition,” he said.
“[I]f he doesn’t reverse course, it will be impossible to consider next year’s elections free and fair.”
Australian academic Lee Morgenbesser on Sunday challenged Cambodia’s credentials as a democracy. “Why call it an attack on democracy? It’s never been a democracy. This is about a harsher brand of authoritarianism,” he tweeted, adding Cambodia had “long been an outright dictatorship, the latest action merely reaffirms it”. He added it was “now clear” that “each act of repression is coordinated towards [the] same political goal”.
Virak agreed the move was a setback for democracy, but said he was “not completely doom and gloom” on the potential for a democratic future in Cambodia.
“I think the foundation of democracy is actually the people. When they actually understand and participate actively, no, I couldn’t discount democracy for Cambodia,” he said. “But institutional democracy will only come after the generation changes.”