Local journalist Chhay Sophal on Wednesday launched his Khmer-language compilation of biographies of the 36 men who have served as prime minister of Cambodia since the closing years of the French protectorate.
Along the rugged shores of Narragansett Bay, the eastern U.S. town of Cranston, Rhode Island, is home to just more than 80,000 residents. On its home page, the mayor boasts of having two of the premier shopping and dining centers in the state. The website’s “in the news” section has no news.
Perhaps it should.
If you believe the Cambodian government, Cranston is also home to the greatest terrorist threat facing Cambodia in the aftermath of its latest national election: Sourn Serey Ratha, a man bent on toppling the state in a bloody coup and with the means to do it.
Mr. Ratha, born November 18, 1970, into a family of farmers in western Cambodia, is the president and founder of the Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM). Prime Minister Hun Sen has personally labeled him a terrorist. He has accused the main opposition party, the CNRP, of hiding KPPM members in its ranks. Over the past two months, police have arrested seven men and women—four of them just last week—for allegedly aiding Mr. Ratha in his aim to overthrow the prime minister.
But rights groups, lawyers and observers say the government has failed to prove any criminal behavior or even intent on the movement’s part. Instead, they accuse Mr. Hun Sen and his ruling CPP of using yet another dissident group to taint the opposition and scare its critics out of speaking up. As for Mr. Ratha, some of his ideas seem to border on the delusional, but he has always fallen short of calling for outright violence.
“It’s nothing new,” said Lao Mong Hay, a law professor and long-time political observer. “Anything that could discredit the opposition, they [the CPP] will use it.”
On its website, the KPPM calls itself “a prominent political movement of Cambodians overseeing the challenge of Hun Sen’s regime in Phnom Penh for the purpose of political change.” It talks of not only unseating Mr. Hun Sen but of revamping the country’s very political system from what it calls the current “communist monarchy” to a “democratic liberal republic.” It also wants a president instead of a prime minister.
Its 10-point manifesto for this new republic talks about enhancing democracy, human rights and the rule of law. But mostly, it talks about setting up an “alliance of progress” with the U.S. military to fend off any potential invasion from Vietnam or China.
Take point number four: “In order to strengthen national defense, the new government of the Second Khmer Republic regime will have allied command with the troops of the United States not only in the region but also around the globe.”
Point seven even suggested offering the U.S. a military base on Phu Quoc, an island off the Cambodian coast that in fact belongs to Vietnam and is called Koh Tral in Khmer.
Speaking by phone from Cranston last week, Mr. Ratha compared a future Koh Tral to the western Pacific island of Guam, an unincorporated territory of the U.S. and home to several U.S. military bases.
“The people know America is the fatherland of democracy,” he said. “The people of Cambodia need democracy, so we need the help of the U.S. If we want freedom, we must create alliances with the democratic countries like the U.S. If we have a U.S. base here, it means the communist country cannot influence us.”
To bring this new republic about, Mr. Ratha preaches neither the bullet nor the ballot.
Having lost all faith in the country’s deeply flawed elections, Mr. Ratha is calling for a “Rose Revolution.” But rather than looking to Georgia’s own 2003 revolution of the same name, he is instead taking inspiration from the Arab Spring, which started in Tunisia with street protests that drove long-serving strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into exile in early 2011.
“The Arab countries can rise up to change the dictator; why not in Cambodia?” he asked.
Still, Mr. Ratha rejects the use of violence. Even when he had hundreds of stickers ordered up in Phnom Penh earlier this month urging Cambodian soldiers and police to “turn your guns against the despot,” he said he was only asking them to defend Cambodians from any violence coming from the state. His real weapons, he said, were “the flower and the pen.”
Mr. Ratha boasts of KPPM chapters across the U.S., Canada and Europe and said he had up to 1,000 activists in Cambodia working away to mobilize support. With a warrant out for his arrest on an incitement charge, Mr. Ratha said he had snuck in and out of Cambodia many times since allegedly fleeing in 2007. He said he might be back in the country by the end of the month.
“I plan to come back if I get enough supporters to uprise the people,” he said. “If I have 10,000 in each province I can do it. If I can get 200,000 people I can do uprising any time.”
Even the most optimistic of observers would say that seems nigh impossible.
“I would dismiss it right away,” said Mr. Mong Hay.
Indeed, the KPPM is not known to have organized a single rally in Cambodia of any size. Rights workers, lawyers and observers all said Mr. Ratha and his movement posed no discernable threat to peace or stability in Cambodia.
“There is no indication so far this group is conducting criminal activities,” said Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, after police in Banteay Meanchey province arrested three men in early July for transporting shirts ordered by the KPPM with slogans urging people not to vote in the recent election. The three were soon charged with being members of an anti-government group and remain in pre-trial detention.
Just last week, when the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged two people with incitement for printing Mr. Ratha’s stickers and two more for picking up the yellow roses he was hoping to have them handed out with, Licadho spoke up again. It said the court lacked the “extraordinarily compelling evidence of intent and immediacy” to override the suspects’ rights to free speech.
Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent human rights lawyer and head of legal aid NGO the Cambodian Defenders Project, said the movement’s words may be provocative but hardly criminal.
“The words Sourn Serey Ratha used was non-violent weapon, they say flowers and water. So I don’t think it is incitement to commit crime,” Mr Sam Oeun said.
He also defended independent radio station owner Mam Sonando, a prominent rights advocate himself, when the government put him on trial last year for allegedly inciting hundreds of villagers in rural Kratie province to try breaking away from the state.
The government sought to link the alleged secessionists to the KPPM through Mr. Sonando.
Mr. Sonando admitted to having met both the KPPM and villagers in Kratie on separate occasions through his work as a broadcast journalist and rights advocate, but denied sympathizing with either, let alone joining them.
Though the prosecution could prove neither, judges convicted Mr. Sonando and sentenced the 72-year-old to 20 years in jail. Under intense international pressure, the Appeal Court overturned the most serious convictions and set Mr. Sonando free in March.
Last week, Mr. Sonando said he came away with no particular impression of Mr. Ratha after meeting him in the U.S. a few years back but saw and heard nothing to suggest that he was heading a violent or criminal enterprise.
National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith insisted otherwise.
“He used the website or contacted people inside the country to overthrow the government,” he said on Friday. “The police have the evidence,” he insisted.
Mr. Chantharith was unclear about the details, however, and suggested calling the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, which he said had charged Mr. Ratha with incitement and issued a warrant for his arrest some time in late 2011 or early 2012.
Officials at the court declined to comment. But Mr. Ratha told a very different story. He said he was forced to flee the country in 2007, when the court in Siem Reap—not Phnom Penh—issued a warrant for his arrest after charging him with incitement for the work he was doing at the time for the Commune Council Support Project.
The NGO, which has since changed its name to the Cambodian Civil Society Partnership, helps other NGOs work more effectively with local communities. Mr. Ratha said he ran afoul of the authorities for trying to teach villagers how to demonstrate.
“I promoted grassroots advocacy…and the government accused me of inciting the people,” he said.
It’s not an unlikely story in Cambodia, where NGOs regularly accuse the government of arresting and convicting rights advocates for doing legitimate work. But the Siem Reap Provincial Court’s chief prosecutor, Ty Soventhal, said he had no record of a warrant for Mr. Ratha’s arrest. Staff at the Civil Society Partnership confirmed that Mr. Ratha had left the NGO in 2007 but denied any trouble with the law.
“He was staff but there was no trouble with the government like he said,” Sokhany Prak, the NGO’s executive director, said. “It is a wrong statement.”
Mr. Ratha’s sister, Sourn Sovanry, was reluctant to speak about her brother. She briefly went into hiding when police came by their Battambang family home to question their mother when the three men were arrested for the anti-election shirts. Ms. Sovanry said she could not remember when her brother left Cambodia but knew of no arrest warrant.
“I don’t know what he’s doing. He just told me he went to the U.S. to study,” she said. “His business is his business and mine is mine.”
She said he called occasionally and has visited Cambodia once since leaving.
Both Mr. Ratha and the CNRP deny any ties and even speak of the other with some disdain. But that hasn’t stopped the CPP from claiming a link. In May, with the elections fast approaching, Mr. Hun Sen said the KPPM was one of three terrorist groups that had infiltrated the opposition party.
Skeptics have suspected the government of inventing a number of terrorist groups over the years, from the Tiger Head movement in 2010 to the more recent Khmer National Liberation Front. Analysts say the government has at the very least made them out to be far more of a threat than they ever were as a way of telling the public not to threaten the status quo.
“Given the nature of modern Indochinese history, the CPP leadership undoubtedly takes even small perceived threats seriously, but it is difficult to detect significant threats over the past decade,” John Ciorciari, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, said in April.
“The CPP’s political success has been built largely on the notion that the party has helped to stabilize and unify the country, a narrative that is difficult to maintain without occasionally identifying threats to national stability,”
As for Mr. Ratha, the KPPM president said he was dividing his days between pursing a Master’s degree in political science through Arizona State University from Cranston and planning the coming revolution.
He was also on the lookout for another lawyer to carry on the KPPM’s efforts to sue Mr. Hun Sen at the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity, one he hoped would work pro bono.
Lawyers, Mr. Ratha confessed, “are very expensive.”
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