On September 7, 2017, Cambodian opposition leader, Kem Sokha, was charged with treason for scheming with other countries to topple the government. Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Ly Sophana said, “Kem Sokha was charged after a thorough investigation, including interrogation and examination of the evidence.”
Although Cambodia is a democracy, it has been under the control of the Cambodian People’s Party and its leader, Hun Sen, since 1985. Over the past 33 years, he has been criticized for political oppression, corruption, land disputes, and control of media. He is currently seeking to be re-elected next year. The main opposition party in Cambodia is the Cambodia National Rescue Party, led by Kem Sokha. He became its president on March 2, 2017, and went on to win 482 of 1,646 communes in the 2017 June local elections.
According to The New York Times, Kem Monovithya, Kem Sokha’s daughter, said her father had been charged by a prosecutor who had travelled to the maximum-security prison, about 120 miles northeast of Phnom Penh, where he was being held. Concerns are growing over how much the longer the party will be able to function, now that the fate of potential leaders has become apparent. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said, “I am also concerned that numerous public statements by the prime minister and high-ranking officials about Sokha’s supposed guilt breach the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial to which he is entitled under Cambodian and international human rights law.”
Kem Sokha was arrested because is a main threat to current Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, in the political election next year. Combined with the banishment of U.S. NGOs and a shutdown of media over the past two weeks, Hun Sen has managed to clear the main obstructions for his re-election. Both Kem Sokha’s case and the banishment of media, however, violate human rights and indicates the decline of the political rights situation in Cambodia.
It is important not to forget that China is recognized as the current Cambodian government’s main ally in Southeast Asia. It may be reasonable for Kem Sokha to seek U.S help for the political election next year, as it will be almost impossible for a minority leader to defeat Hun Sen, who is backed by China. If we view this case in a broader context, it may be seen as part of a power game between China and the U.S. The Kem Sokha case, the banishment of U.S. NGOs, and the shutdown of media all demonstrate that U.S. may lose the battle against Asia’s regional power. Should this speculation be true, the next step for the international community is to urge the Chinese government to shift its position on Cambodia.