CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha marked a month in self-imposed house arrest in the opposition party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh on Sunday, with no indication that he plans to leave and authorities proving reluctant to force their way in to seize him.
Mr. Sokha has been hiding in the CNRP’s headquarters since May 26, when police tried to storm the building to arrest him over his failure to appear in court over an extramarital affair authorities have been zealously pursuing since March.
“Our strategy is correct,” said CNRP lawmaker Pol Ham, the most senior member of the opposition party besides its president, Sam Rainsy, and Mr. Sokha, in a speech outside the headquarters on Sunday morning. Supporters have been keeping guard outside the building since Mr. Sokha began living inside.
Mr. Ham said Mr. Sokha’s defiance in the face of intimidation was about breaking the cycle of opposition parties in Cambodia being beaten down by the CPP between elections but still expecting to win on voting day.
“We are not just coming to protect the leader, Kem Sokha. We are coming to make demands in order for national and international opinions to see that the political situation is not good enough to open up the way for free and fair elections yet,” Mr. Ham said.
CNRP officials have repeatedly skirted questions about what it would take to trigger Mr. Sokha’s exit, though his daughter said earlier this month that only a complete end to the judicial persecution of opposition activists and officials could see him leave.
Yet with Mr. Sokha seemingly stuck inside until the government decides to arrest him or let him free, and CPP leaders indicating they are satisfied with that situation, a bigger question has become who in fact is benefitting from the standoff.
“No one. Everyone is a loser,” said Sophal Ear, author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy” and an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
“Kem Sokha can’t go outside and campaign,” he said. “The CPP looks like it could only go so far, threatening arrest but not delivering. Everyone has lost face. Cambodia is the biggest loser from all these distractions.”
“The focus should be on reforms and getting the economy into shape, lifting all boats. Instead, they’re busy playing cat and mouse once again.”
Though Mr. Sokha has been unwilling to exit his redoubt, he has been more than willing to accept prominent visitors over his time inside, posting photographs to Facebook almost every day of his meetings with party leaders, supporters and activists.
The ambassadors of the E.U., the U.S., Canada and France, along with the country director of the International Committee of the Red Cross, have also made the unusual step over the past two weeks of visiting the CNRP’s headquarters to meet Mr. Sokha.
None have openly expressed their support for Mr. Sokha, but have instead described the visits as “part of our regular contacts with all political forces” in the case of the French, and to discuss the “political situation” and “human rights” in the case of the U.S.
“We are in regular contact with CNRP as the main opposition party,” said E.U. Ambassador George Edgar in an email following his meeting with Mr. Sokha on June 17, which included smiling for photographs while shaking hands.
“As we have said before, we believe it is in the interests of Cambodia that there should be an environment in which all political parties and civil society can freely carry out their legitimate functions.”
John Ciorciari, a Cambodia expert at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, said in an email that the well-publicized diplomatic meetings with Mr. Sokha under the current political circumstances spoke for themselves.
“Without some international support, CNRP leaders would be relatively easy prey. Recent diplomatic visits at least complicate efforts to use the courts to remove CNRP leaders,” Mr. Ciorciari said.
“The message is that Kem Sokha is a legitimate opposition leader, and using compliant courts to neuter the CNRP will damage CPP relations with some Western capitals.”
However, Mr. Ciorciari cautioned that Prime Minister Hun Sen may not remain concerned with diplomatic opinion if the CNRP continues to challenge his power.
“Hun Sen said this week that using the law is better than using guns—an oblique reminder that if the first tool of power fails, he still has the second,” he said.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said he was not even sure why Mr. Sokha was still inside the CNRP headquarters, as the sole exception to a lawmaker’s immunity from arrest for “red-handed” crimes had a validity of a week after the crime was committed.
“What do we think? He has made himself scared. There are no laws to arrest him because obvious offenses only have a week of validity for arrest,” Mr. Eysan said, before acknowledging he could be wrong.
“This is just my opinion. I’m not a legal expert. If he leaves and they arrest him, don’t blame Sok Eysan.”
US Ambassador William Heidt greets deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha at the CNRP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh on Friday, in a photograph posted to Mr. Sokha’s Facebook page.
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