This Sunday, Cambodians will head to the polls in the country’s sixth general election since the 1991 Paris Peace Accords officially marked an end to nearly three decades of war. Over that time, the small Southeast Asian state has experienced consistent economic growth. Yet almost 20 percent of the country lives in poverty, while those who cozy up to the government can generate vast wealth, much of it hidden overseas.
Through it all, Prime Minister Hun Sen has been at the country’s helm. By rewarding those loyal to him and crushing opponents with legal force and violence, he has held power for 33 years. But in 2013 the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party grabbed a shocking 44 percent of the vote, despite accusations of electoral fraud helping the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
With that, Kem Sokha, the leader of the CNRP, became a threat. He became the target of what observers allege are politically motivated court cases, harassment, and arrest. In August, the government shuttered more than a dozen radio stations—still the primary news source for many Cambodians. And the following month authorities detained Sokha, using his arrest as an excuse to dissolve the CNRP and replace the party’s 5,000 elected officials with its own members. Now, Cambodian citizens face a general election with only one viable candidate—Hun Sen himself.
I spoke with Kem Monovithya, director of public affairs for the CNRP and daughter of jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha. As the party’s senior representative, she too has been the victim of government-sponsored attacks that accuse her of trying to destabilize the country and was recently named in a lawsuit brought by the Cambodian government for her continued political activity abroad. We discussed her father’s detention, the right to boycott the vote, and the future of democracy in Cambodia.
Safiya Charles: Let’s start with September 3, the night that your father was arrested at his home. What happened?
Kem Monovithya: We just had the [June 4] commune elections, so there wasn’t much going on in the country. Everyone was sort of relaxed, and I went abroad to Europe. Then these accusations started coming out on government TV, and all over their social media that I supported a color revolution, that my sister and I work for the CIA—it was very odd. That was about two weeks before my father’s arrest. At the same time, in the background, there was this crackdown on The Cambodia Daily.
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SC: I was actually on staff at the Daily when it was hit with that $6.3 million tax bill and shuttered a month later.
KM: Well, I told my father we needed to pay attention to the situation at The Cambodia Daily and asked him if he could raise the issue with the diplomatic community in Thailand. Then there’s the release of this so-called video evidence of him fomenting a color revolution with the US, and suddenly everything shifts toward him—this is two days before his arrest. As he’s trying to board a plane to Bangkok to meet with the diplomatic community, his passport was blocked. That’s when he knew something was up, because it was the first time it ever happened, and he was given no reason. After 10 to 20 minutes, they let him on the plane.
He immediately called me to discuss whether he should return, and as a family we decided that, although arrest was a possibility, he shouldn’t live in fear. So the next day he returned to Cambodia. Two hours after he got home, 200 military police raided our house at midnight and held everyone at gunpoint. I was actually on the phone with my father as they dragged him out, he said, “They don’t have a warrant, but they’re breaking in. They’re coming into the house,” and then they snatched it. They took our guards, all the men in the house, and left my mother, the cleaner, and the cook.
SC: I want to talk about the video you mentioned. It’s a recording of a 2013 speech Kem Sokha gave in Melbourne, Australia, that Hun Sen’s government is purporting as evidence of his involvement in a secret plot with the United States to “harm” Cambodia, but the CNRP denies this. Is there any truth to that claim?
KM: Quite the contrary, the video speaks for itself—it’s about grassroots democracy. He’s calling for people who desire change to channel that through free and fair elections, he says it multiple times, and he [explicitly] says that the violent way of change will not get us there. What he’s talking about is democratic opposition.
SC: And for this the government has charged him with treason, which carries a sentence of up to 30 years.
KM: Change through free and fair elections is not treason, but by their definition it is.
SC: Kem Sokha has been held in solitary confinement since September 3 at a remote prison on the border with Vietnam. The US, EU, and New Zealand, among others, have called his detention “arbitrary” and “politically motivated.” He’s been denied requests for bail several times, and there have been some concerning reports about his health. What’s his current state like?
KM: The government has said that he’s a national-security threat. He’s been denied visits and medical check-ups. Nobody except for my mother and his lawyer has been allowed to see him—even the International Red Cross. He has an overgrowth of bone that’s crushing on his left shoulder, so he’s in pain. He needed laser surgery on it before his arrest, but he was busy with local elections. Now it’s been more than a year and a half since the doctor recommended it.
SC: What hope do have that your father will be released from prison?
KM: Hun Sen will only release him if there’s a price his regime has to pay to keep him.
SC: You’ve been traveling around the world attempting to drum up support for the CNRP since September. The US took a big step last month by blacklisting Hing Bun Heang, the commander of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, under the Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the US government to sanction human-rights offenders by freezing their assets and banning them from entering the country. How does this fit into your overall strategy to weaken the CPP’s position?
KM: Sanctions are one of the things that I’ve called for since the beginning of the crackdown, and I’m glad that it recently happened. It’s very important and effective to target individuals. I’m pushing for more names to be included on that list.
The CPP is operating on the basis of patronage, so we need to shake up that system. When the people around Hun Sen are being negatively impacted by his decisions, it makes them more likely disregard his orders. It’s very important to alienate him.
SC: Tell me about the Clean Finger Campaign, which is a play on the ink-stained finger voters get by casting a ballot. The CNRP and leading critics are advocating a boycott. What are you hoping to achieve?
KM: Our supporters have no desire to go and vote. Their party of choice isn’t on the ballot, so who are they going to vote for? Not only that, they’ve seen what’s been happening since September. Even the average Cambodian knows that the election is a sham. The Clean Finger campaign isn’t necessarily calling on people to boycott—it’s about supporting their right to do so, and explaining that since voting is not compulsory, they don’t have to be afraid of legal consequences.
SC: But knowing Hun Sen’s willingness to use violence, knowing that, for example, some garment workers have already been threatened by their managers that if they don’t vote they could lose their jobs—are you concerned that people could get hurt? Do you see a potential for violence?
KM: There’s no excuse for using violence on people because they didn’t vote. I don’t believe that the CPP will do that. It doesn’t make any sense. Other repercussions could possibly happen if few people don’t vote, but if a lot of people act in mass, there’s no way that they would face repercussions. If you look at the way they’ve cracked down in the past when the CNRP held big protests, they never touched anyone unless it was a small crowd of maybe a hundred or less. So, it’s the same concept, we must act in unity.
If 2 million people boycott the election, I don’t believe that the Hun Sen government would have any plans to harm them—that’s just too many people. It would cause chaos, and that’s not what they want right after the election.
SC: After the US and EU withdrew election support, China stepped in pledging $20 million to the National Election Committee. China donated $150 million in aid last year; it gave $600 million in 2016; and this year it also supplied a $100 million military grant. Despite decades of aid and trade preferences, it seems that US influence in Cambodia is declining, while Chinese influence is growing. What are the implications of that?
KM: This is precisely why democratic countries in Asia and elsewhere need to see the Cambodian issue in the regional context. As long as the free world doesn’t give up on Cambodia, I think we still have a chance. Who’s our biggest buyer? It’s the EU and the US. Cambodia still needs to rely on the free world. Who’s given the biggest aid in the last 20 to 30 years? In terms of humanitarian support, it’s the Japanese; and in terms of trade preferences, it’s the US. I don’t think any country would replace that in terms of helping our economic growth.
Now we see a lot of investment coming in from everywhere really, but those investments are there because we have economic growth, and how did we get economic growth? Because of the special privileges that the West has been giving to Cambodia. Cambodia has been benefiting from the West’s generosity; the original source is really the special preferences.
SC: The most major is the Everything But Arms scheme [which provides the world’s least-developed countries with tax-free access to the EU for all products except weapons and ammunition]. The US and EU buy about two-thirds of Cambodia’s exports, and by the CPP’s own estimates, if exemptions were cut, exporters would face $676 million in new tariffs, which would be devastating for the economy. Earlier this month, the EU sent a working group to Cambodia to review it. Is this a part of the CNRP’s strategy or an unintended consequence?
KM: If Cambodia loses trade privileges from either the EU or the US, it will be the sole responsibility of the Cambodian government. The CNRP did not sign an agreement with the US and EU, the Cambodian government did, and it is obliged to fulfill those agreements. It’s beyond the CNRP.
In the unfortunate case that the privileges were to be revoked, it would certainly hurt the country, but it would definitely hurt the businesses that support the ruling party as well, because most of the people who have benefited from Cambodia’s recent economic growth are the rich.
SC: Do you still have hope that democracy can be achieved in Cambodia?
KM: I think the time is now. It’s up to the people to take charge of their own destiny. This is the last stretch of the fight, we must stand together. If we miss this opportunity in the next year or so, I think it will take another 20 years before a new opposition will emerge again. This is exactly why Hun Sen has made sure that this election is a sham. Whoever wins the last battle will win the next two decades.
SC: Hun Sen has said that he will rule for another 10 years. What are you most fearful of under another decade of CPP hegemony?
KM: I think we would live like we did in the ’80s and that would be a tragedy, people outside of the ruling elite would live like second-class citizens. Hun Sen is not capable of reform because change to him is suicidal—change spells the end of his rule. If we don’t grab this opportunity now and act together, if the outside world ignores us, he will continue as he has been doing to the detriment of the country. There’s a lot that we can still do immediately after the July 29 sham election.