Kem Sokha trial

Trick or treason?

After more than two years facing charges of treason, Cambodia's embattled former opposition leader Kem Sokha is set to finally receive his day in court on Wednesday. Southeast Asia Globe spoke with his daughter Monovithya, as well as those who have worked closely with him over the years, to learn about the man behind the politics

WHY WE WROTE THIS: Because Kem Sokha's treason case represents a landmark moment for Cambodian democracy

January 14, 2020
Trick or treason?
A CNRP supporter holds a placard with a portrait of Kem Sokha as police block a street during a protest outside the Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh in September 2017. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

On Wednesday, Cambodia’s embattled former opposition leader Kem Sokha will finally have his day in court, more than two years after being arrested in a midnight raid on his Phnom Penh home.

As the president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), he has long been a major figure in his country’s political opposition. But for all the visibility of Sokha’s work through the years, only a select few will be able to watch as he heads to trial to face a charge of “treason and espionage” decried by international human rights groups as politically motivated.

Sokha was originally arrested in September 2017, with the accusations relating to a video shot in 2013 in which he thanked the US for their support and said he had received their guidance in planning his political trajectory.  

“I was supported by [the] US government, with financial [support] to promote democracy for five years. And today, the result of US citizens’ support has helped Cambodian people to stand up,” Sokha had said in one of the videos used to implicate him.

These seemingly innocuous comments were spun by pro-government outlet Fresh News as evidence of an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that the CNRP, US intelligence agency the CIA and Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party were plotting a coup to overthrow Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison for the crime. 

Sokha’s daughter Kem Monovithya has been a long-time and vocal ally of her father. Speaking to Southeast Asia Globe as both a daughter and political commentator, she dismissed the case against her father as “political theatre” that would harm Cambodia’s image internationally.

Monovithya with Kem at her graduation ceremony in 2002 in California. Photo: Supplied

I was supported by [the] US government, with financial [support] to promote democracy for five years. And today, the result of US citizens’ support has helped Cambodian people to stand up

Kem Sokha, in the 2013 video used to support government claims of his alleged “treason”

“He knows he is innocent and that his opponents, his supporters and the world know that as well,” she said.

Monovithya currently serves as a CNRP deputy-director of public affairs from her home in California, where she’s publicly supported her father in both local and international press – all the while criticising Hun Sen and the CPP. 

For Monovithya, her father has been a public figure for virtually all her life. But when she looks past the politics and thinks of the family man she knew as a child, she describes him in doting terms.

“He is the hardest working person I know, he is remarkably persevering, and he is very forgiving,” she said. “He was very purposefully involved in cultivating my intellect from a very early age. But he gave a lot of freedom, trust and space the moment I became a young adult, allowing me to grow into my own person. This is what is most special about him as a father.” 

Those qualities would come through to many who worked with Sokha through the years – from his entry to politics with the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party in 1993 as representative for Takeo province, to the formation of his Human Rights Party in 2007, and eventually the merger with the Sam Rainsy Party to create the CNRP in 2012.

My earliest memory of him is hearing his recorded voice on a tape that he sent from Prague when he was at university there, describing to me the modernity there, what the places looked like and what kids had

Monovithya Kem

But the early years of Monovithya’s relationship with her father were cultivated from a distance, as he travelled to Europe to pursue a Master’s degree in Chemistry in the mid-1980s.

“My earliest memory of him is hearing his recorded voice on a tape that he sent from Prague when he was at university there, describing to me the modernity there, what the places looked like and what kids had,” she said, reminiscing of those childhood years. 

“He left for the Czech Republic to pursue his education when I was 10 days old, so for five years, he communicated with me through recorded tapes sent once in a while by means of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There were no private telephones or commercial flights then in Cambodia.”

When he returned home to the Kingdom, Sokha would embark on a career as a human rights advocate – a path that led him into conflict with Cambodia’s rich and powerful from the beginning.

Monovithya remembers her childhood home serving as the office of Human Rights Vigilance in Cambodia, an organisation founded by her father in 1991. This made their home a target for threats and intimidation tactics, the worst of which drove the family to flee for sanctuary under the cover of night.

“I would be asleep in my dad’s arms as he transferred me from our home into a car driving to some safe place, which was usually a UN official’s home or somewhere of that sort,” Monovithya said. “There was a constant safety threat, not only to him but to our family as well.”

It was a high price to pay for his human rights mission in Cambodia, but one Sokha believed was worth paying.

Cambodian police outside the Supreme Court compound while CNRP supporters gather during Kem Sokha’s bail hearing in August 2018. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

Pretext for arrest
The 2013 footage of Sokha speaking about US support served as the pretext for the eventual raid on his home in September 2017. But critics point to the timing of his arrest as evidence of its true motivation, with a general election set to be held nine months later in July 2018.

The opposition CNRP – who had received 44% of the popular vote and won 55 of the National Assembly’s 125 seats in the 2013 general election – were regarded as holding a genuine chance of defeating the CPP. 

Following Sokha’s arrest, the CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017. The opposition party was stripped of its National Assembly seats, with 118 of its members receiving a five-year ban from participating in politics. Consequently, the CPP made a clean sweep at the subsequent elections – winning all 125 National Assembly seats – dismissed as a sham by opposition figures and the international community alike.

Sokha went on to spend a year in pre-trial detention in the Trapiang Thlong prison, also known as Correctional Centre 3, in Tboung Khmum province on the Vietnamese border. There, said Monovithya, he developed an interest in gardening and planting trees, among other hobbies intended to calm his mind.

“He picked up meditation during those years,” she said, a practice he was introduced to earlier in his career when linking human rights to Buddhist teachings. “He has practiced meditation regularly since, and even more so when in detention.”

Allowing free coverage by the press is in the interest of the government’s credibility and their case. I think they should open to the public as much as possible

Ou Virak, founder and president of Future Forum

These hobbies continued to sustain Sokha after he was released in September 2018 on a tightly controlled bail agreement, where he was confined to his home in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district. His bail was prompted by health concerns, according to the release order made by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. 

But even as he was released to the comparative comfort of hearth and home, the court imposed restrictions effectively placed him under house arrest, limiting his movement to just a few blocks beyond his house. He was also subject to restricted association to exclude any visits from foreigners – especially those deemed by the government to be associated with his case.

What’s more, the court took power to limit his speech and civic engagement, forbidding him to meet with supporters or discuss politics in any capacity.

The Ministry of Interior had not responded to Southeast Asia Globe’s requests for comments on Kem Sokha’s trial at the time of publication.

Limited access
On Monday, court officials told local media that press access to Wednesday’s hearing would be limited, with nearly all of the 30 seats in the trial room set aside for foreign embassies and consular staff. So with proceedings held squarely behind closed doors, the Cambodian public will have to rely on the perspective and release of information from those inside the room.

This fact could be problematic for the government, says Ou Virak, founder and president of Phnom Penh research institute Future Forum.

“It [allowing free coverage by the press] is in the interest of the government’s credibility and their case. I think they should open to the public as [much as] possible,” he told Southeast Asia Globe. “Given our [Cambodia’s] history, I am expecting the case to be of very little substance from either side, and the narratives will play out publicly according to our own biases.” 

If anyone would have an insight on the Kem Sokha trial, it would be Virak. 

Kem Sokha sitting with his mother Sao Nget while confined at his residence in Phnom Penh in September 2018. Photo: Chhea Bunnarith/AFP

The two men share something of a history, with Virak first watching Sokha speak at a rally in California in 1997. A young college student at the time, Virak reminisces about Sokha’s speech, describing it as “inspiring and strangely courageous”. 

“It might seem strange to many but human rights and democracy wasn’t a dinner table topic for most people then,” Virak says, painting a picture of Sokha as a trailblazer in Cambodian human rights.

Starting in 2005, the two men worked together at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), an organisation founded by Sokha in 2002, and where he served as president. When Sokha was arrested in 2006 on allegations of defamation against the government, he was later released thanks in part to the advocacy of Virak, who by then had taken over as CCHR president.

An acquittal will be less about the case or about Kem Sokha. It would be a lot about Hun Sen and the direction he is planning for the next ten years. It would say a lot about Hun Sen’s next move. It says little about the accused or the court

Ou Virak, founder and president of Future Forum

Looking to the past to decode the present, Virak thinks that even if Sokha is acquitted of his alleged crimes, the outcome of the trial reveals little either way of his innocence, nor the impartiality of the court. Instead, he thinks it will unveil a picture of Hun Sen’s strategic vision. 

“An acquittal is a possible but highly unlikely outcome,” Virak explained. “It will be less about the case or about Kem Sokha if that is to be the outcome. It would be a lot about Hun Sen and the direction he is planning for the next ten years. It would say a lot about Hun Sen’s next move. It says little about the accused or the court.”

Central to Hun Sen’s vision, no doubt, is avoiding the withdrawal of the EU’s vital Everything But Arms trade privileges removing tariffs on exports to the 28-member bloc. Citing a “deterioration of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law in Cambodia”, the EU began the withdrawal assessment procedure in February 2019, with a final decision on the Kingdom’s future set to be made next month. 

Many observers believe the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s decision in November to lift the bail restrictions placed upon Sokha, allowing him to leave his home, was an attempt to ease the international community’s concerns. If he were now to be acquitted, this may also fit into a wider appeasement strategy. 

Publicly, however, Hun Sen has rejected any such claim that democracy is under threat in the Kingdom, nor that he is bowing to international pressure. 

Hun Sen (C-R) and President of the National Assembly Heng Samrin release doves at a ceremony marking the 41st anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh on 7 January. At the event, the prime minister denied accusations of a deteriorating democracy and human rights situation in the Kingdom. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

“There are no legitimate claims raised by the international community about the need to restore democracy and human rights in Cambodia,” he said at an event held last week to commemorate the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. “I hope the international community will reconsider based on Cambodia’s positive developments and respect the will for Cambodians to pursue progress appropriate to our culture, society and constitution.”

Deja vu and resilience 
Hun Sen’s weighing of national sovereignty against international calls for democracy and human rights echoes similar arguments from years past.

But if Hun Sen’s rhetoric evokes deja vu, perhaps the trial may as well. As Virak remembered the imperilled days of 2006 – the first time he watched Sokha go to prison – he said the hardship of that time built the resilient man facing trial today.

“We discussed quite often about that period [Sokha’s imprisonment] as I sought to understand what’s truly going on in prison. The crackdown and imprisonment of 2005/2006 filled in some of the questions we [opposition figures] had about our treatment in prison, as well as how we could cope with it,” he said.

“I can say that we were all much more accepting of the risk afterwards … That was the experience that he [Sokha] needed to continue his calm courage, and that was the Kem Sokha I witnessed during this recent ordeal.”

While Virak remains steadfast in Sokha’s resilience, Monovithya wastes no time in denouncing the trial against her father as a “farce”. But even then, she sees the event as an opportunity to salvage some kind of unity.

“Whatever the outcome of the trial, I hope all Cambodians can start seeing each other as legitimate and finally start building our nationhood together under the roof of our Constitution,” she said.

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