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.