At half-past-midnight on September 3, more than 100 police raided the home of Cambodia’s opposition leader, Kem Sokha. The security forces hustled him away to a maximum-security prison just outside of Phnom Penh. More than two months later, he’s languishing in a cell, awaiting trial for treason.
“Since my father’s arrest, there hasn’t been a day that I didn’t cry myself to sleep,” said Samathida Kem, Sokha’s daughter who was on the phone with her father as he was detained. “His last words were, ‘They’re handcuffing me.’ My mother was left screaming and crying alone with two housemaids as they took him and all the men in our house away.”
At the time, Samathida was safely out of the country, but now she’s afraid to return home. “We have been the targets from the beginning,” she told me. “My mom is alone in Cambodia. Even with fear, she refuses to leave my father.”
In retrospect, the warning signals that Cambodia was headed toward outright dictatorship should have been obvious, especially at the point I became ensnared. But the signs were so absurd they were hard to take seriously.
Ten days earlier, I opened my laptop to alarm. “Did you see this?!” a frantic colleague asked in a Facebook message. She attached an awkwardly translated piece from a government-aligned online tabloid called Fresh News: “An American citizen, Geoffrey Cain, used to be a leader planning a mass movement to topple the former South Korean president, Mrs. Park Geun-hye.” The “exposé” was entirely about me, and included snapshots someone had obtained from my private Facebook page.
My first reaction was to laugh; the story was ludicrous. “Toppling” a nation’s government? Last March, after millions of demonstrators filled the streets, South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, was impeached for corruption, removed from office, and arrested. According to Fresh News, I instigated the uprising that forced her out.
Um, OK, I thought.
Then the conspiracy got weirder. “This person is now employed by a superpower country to plan a strategy assisting the CNRP”—the acronym for Cambodia’s opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party—“to topple the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen.”
As evidence, they showed a dinner photograph of me eating Korean barbecue in Cambodia with Samathida, who is a friend of mine.
The idea that eating barbecue with the daughter of a politician makes me a secret agent with the ability to oust the Korean president is preposterous. No one could possibly believe that, I thought. The Fresh News website was buggy and amateurish. I doubted anyone would read or care about it.
“I’m not going to say anything,” I told my friend. “Why bother denying the story? That would give the impression it matters.”