Sokha Returns With Injured Lawmakers, Calls for Calm

Returning to Cambodia alongside two opposition lawmakers beaten by pro-government protesters last month, CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha on Tuesday called for calm in the wake of recent political turmoil that peaked with an arrest warrant for opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Mr. Rainsy, who arrived in France in the afternoon ahead of a European Parliament vote on Thursday on a resolution addressing the state of democracy in Cambodia, had a warrant issued for his arrest on November 13 for defaming Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008.

Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha speaks to reporters at Phnom Penh International Airport on Tuesday, flanked by injured CNRP lawmakers Kong Saphea, left, and Nhay Chamroeun. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha speaks to reporters at Phnom Penh International Airport on Tuesday, flanked by injured CNRP lawmakers Kong Saphea, left, and Nhay Chamroeun. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The arrest order followed Mr. Sokha’s legally dubious removal as National Assembly vice president at the hands of CPP lawmakers last month and preceded a similarly suspicious decision by the CPP to expel Mr. Rainsy from the parliament altogether.

Neither Mr. Sokha nor Mr. Rainsy had set foot in Cambodia since the arrest warrant was issued. With Mr. Rainsy trying his luck with diplomacy in Europe, Mr. Sokha on Tuesday said things would only improve in Cambodia by remaining calm and working with the CPP.

“What we want the most is for the situation in Cambodia to return back to normal in order to serve our nation altogether,” Mr. Sokha told reporters upon his arrival at Phnom Penh International Airport.

“We know the situation is bad but together we need to make the situation better, and for a good situation we need to sit and discuss things with each other…. Anything is possible when you have determination.”

CNRP lawmakers Kong Saphea and Nhay Chamroeun, who were dragged out of their cars and beaten by pro-CPP protesters while leaving the National Assembly last month, both returned alongside Mr. Sokha and said they now fear for their safety.

Only three men have been arrested for the beating. All are members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, but authorities have refused to reveal which units they served in.

“We are both still concerned about our safety and personal security following the incident of the beating on October 26, which was savage and had never happened before,” Mr. Saphea told reporters.

“We appeal to the authorities and courts to continue to find these perpetrators and sentence them according to the law,” he said, noting that dozens of men can be seen in video footage of the attack.

After leaving the airport, Mr. Sokha chaired an afternoon gathering of the CNRP’s lawmakers and provincial leaders to discuss the party’s strategy in the lead-up to the 2018 national election, CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith said.

“We organized three working groups to go out and explain the political situation and about the [need for a] peaceful situation,” Mr. Ponhearith said, adding that the groups would start their work on Friday.

Contacted in France, where he is seeking to apply diplomatic pressure on Prime Minister Hun Sen to allow his free return to Cambodia, Mr. Rainsy said he was headed to Strasbourg, one of two seats of the European Parliament, ahead of a vote to condemn the government.

“The European Parliament is holding its session in Strasbourg in France, not in Brussels. It has now been confirmed there will be a resolution submitted to the whole parliament on Thursday,” he said.

“So long as it has not yet been adopted, we cannot say anything… [but] it is on the deterioration of the situation in Cambodia and reflects statements issued by human rights organizations in Cambodia and abroad.”

A schedule on the European Parliament’s website says a debate and a vote on a resolution addressing “cases of breaches of human rights, democracy and the rule of law” in Cambodia will take place at 9 a.m. Thursday, but provides no further details.

Mr. Rainsy noted it would not be the first time the European Parliament issued a resolution condemning the state of affairs in Mr. Hun Sen’s Cambodia and that the content this time may be similar.

“The E.U. Parliament has issued several resolutions condemning the human rights situation and calling for Cambodian authorities to put things right. Many resolutions specifically mention my name,” he said.

From Geneva, Rhona Smith, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, issued a statement on Monday warning that the country could be on the precipice of serious strife if the CPP and CNRP fail to reverse the past month of turmoil.

“The past weeks have been marked by a number of worrying developments: increasing tensions between the two principal political parties; incidences of violence; intimidation of individuals; and resort to offensive language in the political discourse,” Ms. Smith said.

“Any intensification of current events could bring Cambodia to a dangerous tipping point,” she added. “I have appealed in private to the leaders of both parties to abide by their May agreement, demonstrating mutual respect by returning to the ‘culture of dialogue.’”

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said that he was not concerned about the effect on the country’s global image that a new E.U. resolution may have, and added that Mr. Rainsy was dreaming if he thought foreign condemnations would let him return scot-free.

“It’s their right to vote in favor of it or against it. It’s their right. But Cambodia is a Cambodian issue, therefore the foreigners should not put their hands into Cambodia’s internal affairs,” he said.

“This is a legal procedural issue and not a political procedural issue, [as suggested] by the claim that the ruling party is tightening up on the opposition party. There can be negotiations only for political issues.”

However, Mr. Rainsy said he believed an E.U. resolution would help put pressure on Mr. Hun Sen.

“Between what one says, and what one thinks, and how one acts, it could be very different,” he said.

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