A planned return to Cambodia Monday by senior opposition official Mu Sochua and other opposition figures to face legal action in the courts has now been moved to Jan. 15, party sources say.
Speaking in a TV interview on Monday, Mu Sochua told RFA that her plan to return from exile with other Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) officials has been pushed back because the flight she had booked for leaving from the U.S. was canceled due to renewed concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.
She and other returning CNRP officials had already bought their airline tickets, she said, adding that she plans to return to Cambodia to face charges in the Cambodian court even without a Cambodian entry visa, which the Cambodian consulate in Massachusetts has so far refused to give her.
“I hold a U.S. passport because my Cambodian passport was canceled by Hun Sen’s government. So to go to Cambodia, I need a visa, and I have applied online for a visa with the Cambodian consulate in Massachusetts, but they have not replied to my request yet,” she said.
“As far as I know, though, arrival visas are no longer an issue. These kinds of obstacles are beyond our control,” Mu Sochua said, vowing to go back to Cambodia anyway.
Also speaking to RFA, senior CNRP official Buth Buntenh confirmed the new date for Mu Sochua’s return to Cambodia, adding, “Our Jan. 15 plan to repatriate is proved by our Singaporean airline tickets and our scheduled sending-off party on Jan. 10 at the Phnom Serey Buddhist temple in Massachusetts.”
“Mu Sochua has committed herself to return even without a visa,” he said.
Party members arrested
At least 10 members of Cambodia’s banned CNRP were arrested by authorities between November and December last year ahead of the announced return of Mu Sochua and the other party members from exile, Cambodian sources say.
Ten of those arrested have been charged with incitement, conspiracy to topple the government, and insulting Cambodia’s king, Sam Sok Kong—a lawyer working to defend the group—told RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday.
The arrested activists had only exercised the right to freedom of expression as citizens of a democratic country protected by law, he said.
“They had simply called for the release of other CNRP members and social activists who had been arrested and jailed earlier, and my own opinion is that their struggle to demand the release of jailed activists is not an offense,” Sam Sok Kong said.
“They were acting within the rights of all [Cambodian] citizens that are guaranteed by national and international law, and in particular our Constitution.”
Based on information received from the CNRP, more than 10 party members may have been arrested in recent weeks, but relatives of these activists have not yet asked him for legal help, he added.
Yen Vanneth, a CNRP activist currently living in Malaysia, said that her father—the vice-chairman of the CNRP executive committee for Tbaung Khmum province’s Suong city—had been arrested by provincial authorities on Dec. 28 but had not committed any crime.
Following the CNRP’s banning in November 2017, her father had given up political activities and had worked only as a farmer, Yen Vanneth said, adding that authorities have not said why he was arrested or allowed family members to visit him.
“My father’s arrest is an injustice for my family, and I therefore appeal to national and international organizations to help monitor his case,” she said.
Phon Sophal, a representative of a farmer’s community in Tbaung Khmum’s Memot district, is also being held on an unclear charge after being arrested on Dec. 30, Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Communities head Theng Savoeun told RFA on Monday.
“I think that this was an attempt to threaten and intimidate land and farm activists who have been active in the past in helping communities and carrying out social work,” Theng Savoeun said, adding that he is now looking for a lawyer to help defend the member of his group.
Before making any arrest, Cambodian authorities always have arrest warrants and sufficient evidence to proceed, said Chhay Kim Khoeun, a spokesperson for the National Police General Commissariat, speaking to RFA.
“No one bans citizens from exercising rights protected by the Constitution,” Chhay Kim Khoeun said. “But the law will not permit anyone to exercise their rights in ways that violate other people’s rights as well.”
Violations of basic rights
“Authorities and court officials always claim that they make such arrests in accordance with the laws and procedures of Cambodia,” said Am Sam Ath, deputy director of the Cambodian rights group Licadho.
“But international human rights organizations, the United Nations, and UN special rapporteurs believe that these arrests are made in violation of the fundamental rights of our citizens.”
Authorities’ arrests of CNRP party members in advance of the planned return of party vice-president Mu Sochua are like the arrests carried out ahead of the announced return from Paris more than a year ago of acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy, Am Sam Ath said.
Sam Rainsy had promised to return on Nov. 9, 2019 to lead nonviolent protests against Prime Minister Hun Sen, urging Cambodian migrant workers abroad and members of the military to join him. However, his plan to enter Cambodia from Thailand was thwarted when he was refused permission to board a Thai Airways plane in Paris.
CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, and two months later the Supreme Court banned the CNRP for its supposed role in the scheme.
The move to dissolve the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo and Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Richard Finney.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.