‘I’m taking my chances’: few Cambodian opposition lawmakers remain as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s crackdown sparks exodus

Ruling government has said there could be more arrests linked to an alleged plot to oust the three-decade-long ruler

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 4:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 10:48pm

Around half the opposition members of Cambodia’s parliament have left the country in fear of a crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, a deputy party leader said.

The leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Kem Sokha, was arrested on September 3 and charged with treason for an alleged plot to take power with help from the United States.

The government has said there could be more arrests linked to the alleged plot, which the opposition has dismissed as a ploy to ensure Hun Sen keeps his more than three-decade hold on power in next year’s general election.

Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has a slim majority in the 123-member parliament, which voted on September 11 to allow the prosecution of Kem Sokha in a vote boycotted by opposition members.

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“About half are out of the country in fear,” Mu Sochua, one of three deputies to Kem Sokha said on Friday. “I’m taking my chances. We cannot live in fear and let the fear paralyse us.”

She said the party was still in contact with those members outside the country as the opposition tries to rally international pressure on the government.

A spokesman for the ruling party said it was an internal issue for the CNRP if its members were abroad. Spokesman Sok Eysan said the CPP believed in a culture of dialogue but Kem Sokha’s “criminal act” had destroyed it.

“The ship has left the port so it’s already too late,” said Sok Eysan.

The government has said Kem Sokha’s party could be dissolved if it doesn’t drop him as its leader, something the CNRP has said it will not do.

Earlier this week, Cambodia’s appeal court rejected a bail request for Sokha, who was not allowed to attend his own court hearing.

Lawyers for the jailed opposition leader consequently boycotted the hearing.

“Our defence team believes that by holding the hearing in the absence of the accused man, Kem Sokha’s rights are being abused, and that this trial cannot guarantee justice,” said lawyer Sam Sokong.

The Court of Appeals issued a statement saying it upheld the provisional detention warrant and it was unnecessary to bring the suspect to the courtroom as it was not an evidentiary hearing.

The court is yet to set a date for Sokha’s trial and has not explained why it is necessary to detain the 64-year-old in the rural jail, located on the Vietnamese border.

Hundreds of riot police were deployed around the courthouse on Tuesday, with several fire trucks and police trucks parked nearby. Journalists and members of the CNRP were not allowed into the hearing.

Sokha was charged with treason for allegedly conspiring with the United States to topple Hun Sen’s government, and could face 30 years in prison if convicted.

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The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video from 2013 in which he tells supporters that he has support from unidentified Americans for a plan to gain power.

The opposition says it is evidence of an election strategy, not a coup plot.

While Western countries have condemned the arrest of Kem Sokha and called for his release, Hun Sen has support from his close ally China, by far the biggest donor to one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries.

Mu Sochua said she was still hopeful that Western countries would take stronger action against the government, but did not specify what.

“A statement alone is not going to help,” she said.

Additional reporting Agence France-Presse and Associated Press