Cambodian government using courts as weapon against opposition parties, critics say
He eats, exercises and sleeps in his office, but Cambodian opposition politician Kem Sokha is not just hard at work plotting how to win the next election – he is also hiding after being threatened with jail.
Facing prison over an alleged sex scandal, he says he is the latest target of a government which is using the courts as a weapon to pick off its main rivals ahead of elections in 2018.
Although nominally a democracy, Cambodia has been ruled for 31-years by shrewd, pugnacious strongman Hun Sen, whose political machinations crescendo with election cycles.
Ever since the blustering premier nearly lost his office in 2013, rights groups say he has been on a warpath to dismantle the opposition, using pliant courts as a stick to beat his foes.
Last year, old charges were dusted off against top opposition leader Sam Rainsy, sending the Paris-educated politician into self-imposed overseas exile for the third time in a decade.
That left his deputy Kem Sokha to run the show – until a sex scandal in May forced the 63-year-old to hole-up in the party’s Phnom Penh headquarters to avoid arrest.
In September he was handed a five-month jail term for failing to show up as a witness for a police investigation into the hairdresser he is alleged to have had an affair with. The woman is accused of being a prostitute.
“When you live in a country that is not truly democratic, directing the opposition is complicated,” the politician, stoic and soft spoken, told AFP from the party base where he has bunked down for five months.
His small office has been turned into a mini-apartment – a makeshift bed is tucked into the corner, his toothbrush lies on top of a squat fridge which houses provisions such as cheese and sausage.
Outside dozens of supporters are taking shifts to block any attempt to arrest the politician.
“I think he could make Cambodia a real democratic country and allow our country to move forward, as opposed to the current government,” said one of the loyalist guards, 30-year-old Chhai Kimlong.
Hun Sen, a defector from the Khmer Rouge, emerged from the wreckage of their rule to steer a period of relative prosperity and stability in the poor and traumatised country.
But critics say his watch has been characterised by corruption and repression.
Impunity is commonplace for political assassinations and violent crackdowns while graft and nepotism have flourished, feeding a super wealthy elite who make a mockery at the pretence of the rule of law.
In July, prominent pro-democracy activist Kem Ley was gunned down in broad daylight in the capital, unleashing an outpouring of grief in nation that cherished his clarion call for change.
Kem Sokha admits that if authorities wanted him arrested his trusty team of nightwatchers would hardly be a buffer.
He regards what he is doing, not only an act of self-protection, but also one of defiance as Cambodia’s democracy falters. “My political struggle here is like a strike in order to demand the situation return to normal...so that we can prepare free and fair elections,” he said.
“It is very difficult because the ruling party controls state institutions and uses them as political tools”.
A former human rights campaigner, Kem Sokha was thrown behind bars for several weeks in 2005 for criticising the government.
He emerged from the incident as a strong opponent of repression and joined forces with Sam Rainsy, Hun Sen’s arch-rival, to form the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2012.
Riding a wave of dissatisfaction with government graft and rampant rights abuses, the CNRP nearly beat the ruling party in 2013 elections whose results were hotly disputed.
But the duo have struggled to contend with Hun Sen’s subsequent reprisal: a sweeping crackdown that has seen the two leaders, a slew of other party officials and at least 20 human rights workers tangled up in court cases.
With Sam Rainsy barred from returning to Cambodia and Kem Sokha facing jail, the opposition is in parlous state just months before the 2017 local elections, with a general poll a year later.
Hun Sen’s manoeuvres have left “Cambodian democracy hanging by a thread,” according to Sopheap Chak, from the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
It is clear Hun Sen “has absolutely no intention to create an environment conducive to free and fair elections,” she added, noting the crippling combination of “judicial harassment, violence and threats”.
Still, Kem Sokha is optimistic: “Our hope is the majority of Cambodians want change.”
Cramped in the public arena, his party is using social media to reach out to young people – one third of Cambodia’s 15 million population are aged under-30. Down the hall from Kem Sokha’s office-bedroom, a dedicated digital team is churning out Facebook and YouTube posts that highlight protests and dissent overlooked in the mainstream media, hoping to galvanise their supporters.
“Whenever there is an event, we go there and make a video to show what other media do not dare broadcast,” said 30-year-old Kao Hach, as he tapped away on a laptop.