Cambodia is headed for a crucial general election in July 2018, and arrested opposition stalwart Kem Sokha poses a significant challenge to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party.
The charges were breathtaking. A leading Cambodian opposition leader is jailed in the remote outskirts of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on suspicion of conspiring with the US to overthrow the Cambodian government. And a celebrated daily newspaper is forced to shut down for non-payment of state tax.
These alarming events are taking place ahead of a crucial general election in July 2018, a poll in which the arrested opposition stalwart, Kem Sokha, and his Cambodia National Rescue Party pose a significant challenge to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The crackdown by the Cambodian government on the opposition and the press is reminiscent of several earlier repressive regimes that ruled this Southeast Asian country.
On September 3, the authorities arrested main opposition leader Sokha, accusing him of treasonous collusion with the US to stage a coup against the government. The next day, the leading newspaper, The Cambodia Daily, declared that it was being forced to shut down as the government demanded the paper pay overdue taxes or pack up.
These extreme coercive steps indicate that the ruling party is not confident about an outright victory in the poll for the National Assembly next year.
Hun Sen is behaving like earlier Cambodian leaders that had taken repressive actions against both the opposition and the Ppess. The French colonial rulers had denied newspapers licenses to publish, and Prince Norodom Sihanouk behaved arrogantly towards those newspapers that dared oppose him.
Afterwards, General Lon Nol subjected the press to heavy-handed censorship through its draconian media law, the Khmer Rouge shut down all newspapers ahead of the genocide and the Heng Samrin regime made sure that the media did not stray from the official line.
The timing of these events reveals the ruling party’s nervousness of the opposition and the media, whom it views as adversaries, as they can hurt its performance in elections.
Sokha has already spent almost six months under house arrest last year in a separate “prostitution” case. He is now the third opposition lawmaker in prison, on top of more than two dozen opposition members and government critics detained over the past year.
The charges against Sokha stem from a video of his speech broadcast by the Australia-based Cambodia Broadcasting Network in late 2013, which curiously reappeared online just before his arrest.
In the speech, he is seen telling an audience in Australia that he had been receiving assistance from the US and from academic experts as part of a political strategy to bring about change in Cambodia. Sokha explains that he was encouraged by the US to create the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, which he founded in 2002.
In the broadcast, he declares, “The US says that if you want to change the dictatorial leader, you cannot change the top, you need to uproot to change the bottom first – this is its democratic strategy.”
Hun Sen has accused the US of plotting to oust him, reminding Cambodians of the US-backed coup that toppled Sihanouk in 1970.
“The Americans used to do it, this problem, with Lon Nol, and now the Americans are doing this problem with Kem Sokha,” the prime minister said.
The US State Department expressed concern at the arrest of Sokha and the government’s action against the media, raising doubt over Cambodia’s ability to hold a free and fair election.
Hun Sen countered this argument. “It’s an act of treason with conspiracy with a foreign country, betraying his own nation. This requires arrest.”
Meanwhile, the owner of The Cambodia Daily, Deborah Krisher-Steele (the daughter of the paper’s founder Bernard Krisher) declared, “The power to tax is the power to destroy. And after 24 years and 15 days, the Cambodian government has destroyed The Cambodia Daily, a special and singular part Cambodia’s free press.”
Hun Sen chastised the publishers as “thieves” and told them to either pay the tax or “pack up and go.”
The Daily argues that the tax dispute was politically motivated and has called for a proper audit and negotiations with the tax department.
Krisher-Steele said that “the Daily has been targeted for an astronomical tax assessment, leaks and false statements by the tax department and public vilification by the head of government before an audit, much less a legal proceeding.”
There has always been a convenient nexus between Cambodian politicians and the media, with many journalists using the press as a stepping stone to a career in politics. These include the Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan, who founded the newspaper L’Observateur in the 1960s. Five such journalists became prime minister or heads of state – Son Ngoc Thanh, Sim Var, Long Boret, Pol Pot (who wrote occasional articles) and Samphan.
The line between politicians and the media has continually blurred. Most recently, Khieu Kanharith rose from the post of editor of a state-run magazine owned by the Heng Samrin regime in the 1990s to the position of minister of information in the present government.
The idea of democracy and a free press are fairly recent in this country, which helps explain the ongoing turmoil. The UN-supervised general election of 1993 not only created the first National Assembly since the civil war that ran from 1970 to 1991, but it also laid the groundwork for the media to mushroom. But the reforms were incomplete as the media continually suffers harassment from state officials and powerful business “okhna” (tycoons).
Although under the rule of Hun Sen Cambodia has registered impressive economic growth of more than 7% a year, the prosperity has not translated into electoral votes for the ruling CPP, which has been winning with slender margins against a united opposition.
When the civil war ended in 1991, many publishers began dreaming of starting newspapers in Cambodia. Some have had them dashed and others have lasted longer. One such publisher is Krisher, a friend of King Sihanouk, who launched The Cambodia Daily in August 1993 out of a single room in the rundown Renakse Hotel fronting the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.
Most of the operating costs came out of Krisher’s pocket. Western news agencies supplied wire reports free of cost, the New York Times provided some of its major stories to the little-known Phnom Penh newspaper and the Renakse donated a room.
It became a good, even great, newspaper that began amateurishly, initially consisting of 12 pages, A4 sized, with a single page of Cambodian news, two editors and five reporters. It grew into a much-respected and professional outfit.
The Daily has asked the state to come to the negotiating table and work out a settlement.
The newspaper may resume publishing some day. As minister of information Kanharith once pointed out: “This is Cambodia. Anything can happen here.”
But the fate of Sokha is less certain. He is likely to remain in jail. For he poses a greater threat to the ruling party.
Harish Mehta, a veteran Indochina correspondent, covered Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos for the Business Times of Singapore for 17 years. He has written three books on Cambodia: Cambodia Silenced: The Press under Six Regimes; Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen; and Warrior Prince. He holds a PhD and has taught Southeast Asian history at Canadian universities.