Hun Sen orders release of 70 Cambodia opposition activists
Longtime leader says people who had been accused of plotting to overthrow the government should be released on bail.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday ordered the release on bail of more than 70 opposition activists who have been arrested in recent weeks and accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 34 years, has been under increasing international pressure to improve his human rights record, with the European Union threatening the withdrawal of important trade benefits.
“There are over 70 people, please hurry up work on this case so that these brothers can be released on bail,” Hun Sen said in a speech at a new cement factory in the southern province of Kampot, in comments directed at judicial authorities.
Cambodia arrested dozens of people in the run-up to last Saturday, when veteran opposition leader Sam Rainsy had said he would return from self-imposed exile in Paris to rally opposition to Hun Sen.
Trade in balance
In the event, amid growing government pressure on his party and its supporters, Rainsy flew to Malaysia before arriving in Indonesia on Thursday. He said he had been prevented from flying to Thailand where his deputy, Mu Sochua, had been refused entry last month.
On Saturday, Cambodia also relaxed the house arrest conditions on opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was arrested on treason charges more than two years ago. He says the charges are ridiculous and has called for them to be dropped.
Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy co-founded the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was banned in 2017.
The decision of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to ease the conditions of detention of Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha is a first step in the right direction. However, Kem Sokha remains under court supervision, his case is not closed and he is banned from engaging in any political activities.
The European Union reiterates the importance of the Cambodian authorities taking immediate action to open the political space in the country, to establish the necessary conditions for a credible, democratic opposition and initiate a process of national reconciliation through genuine and inclusive dialogue. In particular, we expect Kem Sokha to be fully released and his political rights reinstated so that he can play a full part in political life. We also expect the Cambodian authorities to reinstate the political rights of all opposition members banned from political life and to fully release all opposition members, supporters and activists recently put under detention.
Maja KOCIJANCIC(link sends e-mail) Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations+32 (0)2 29 86570+32 (0)498 984 425
“My daughters would rather I take a break from politics. They are worried about me,” Sochua admitted when we had lunch together before she left on her way home. “But they’ve decided to support me as a woman defending democracy and human rights. And yes, I’ll miss the grandchildren.”
In a few days, a 65-year-old grandmother will freely board a plane on a journey to probable imprisonment in a foul Cambodian jail. Mu Sochua, one of Cambodia’s most influential politicians, is the vice president of the outlawed opposition party trying to return democracy to Cambodia. She carries a U.S. passport but is under no illusion that this will protect her from the ire of Hun Sen, the strongman of Cambodia.
He has marked her as one of the country’s most dangerous traitors and has ordered the Cambodian army and police to use force to stop her and her colleagues from entering the country by land, sea or air. But Sochua and her peers thoughtfully announced their date of return in advance: Nov. 9, Cambodian Independence Day.AD
“This is the moment to go back,” Sochua told me. “Inside Cambodia, fear is everywhere. I can’t accept that Hun Sen continues as a cruel dictator.”
Sochua is a reminder of the unbearable personal sacrifices required to protect and promote democracy in this age of brutal tyrants, especially for women. We met decades ago when she opened the first nongovernmental organization for women’s rights in peacetime Cambodia, tackling domestic violence, human trafficking and gender equality under the law. Over the years, we shared our enjoyment of gossip, mutual admiration of Cambodian architecture and her hopes to pull the country closer to the ideals she absorbed in the United States.
Sochua was a practical idealist in a country traumatized by the Khmer Rouge genocide. After her parents sent all four children overseas to study when the Vietnam War spread into Cambodia in 1970, Sochua ended up in the Bay Area, graduating from San Francisco State and earning a master’s degree in social work from the University of California at Berkeley. She was on the cusp of the successful immigrant path — bright career, professional security and family.AD
Instead, she spent the next five years on the Thai border helping Cambodian refugees, honoring her parents who had disappeared under the Khmer Rouge. At the border camps, she met her husband, Scott Leiper, a Khmer-speaking American who was working to reunite children with their parents. They moved to the broken mess that was Cambodia and, with a family of three daughters, threw themselves into the country’s recovery: Leiper with the United Nations, Sochua from NGOs to politics.
As a Cambodian woman, Sochua faced huge pushback in the male-dominated political arena. Her daughters noticed what she was going through — the rough behavior, betrayals and threats of violence. Despite the obstacles, she won a seat in parliament and then became the first woman to head the Ministry for Women, chalking up success with new laws and the addition of women throughout government.
But Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge officer, pushed out his co-prime minister to rule Cambodia on his own and add to the spectacular corruption that had made him, his family and croniesmultimillionaires in a poor nation. Sochua left the government to join the opposition. The country was looking for change and, in 2017, her party — the Cambodia National Rescue Party — scored an unexpected victory in local elections. The CNRP appeared headed for an even better showing in the upcoming national elections.