Government Turns to Sonando to Criticize Opposition

In July, Mam Sonando, the outspoken political critic and owner of the independent Beehive radio station, was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly having encouraged an armed uprising against the government in rural Kratie province.

–News Analysis

Less than 10 months later and just two months after he was released from Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh, Mr. Sonando’s political commentaries are now being rebroadcast by state-controlled radio stations and disseminated by the government to media outlets as a means to undermine the political opposition ahead of July’s national election.

So why has the government’s recent enemy No. 1, be­come its ally?

In the past week, two audio segments aired by Bayon radio, which is owned by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s daughter Hun Mana, have contained commentaries made by Mr. Sonando in the run-up to the 2008 national election.

In those segments taken from old broadcasts on his Beehive radio, Mr. Sonando’s criticisms of the opposition SRP and Human Rights Party—which have since merged to become the Cambodia National Res­cue Party (CNRP)—are spliced between recordings of the party’s respective leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, also taking swipes at each other during the 2008 national election campaign.

“The opposition’s policy is to disrupt democracy,” Mr. Sonando says in one dated commentary now being rebroadcast by pro-government media outlets.

“If they cannot eat rice, they want to break the pot,” he continued, using a colloquialism to describe the opposition’s tactic of attacking the country’s democratic institutions if it sees that it cannot win the election.

Although Mr. Sonando was sentenced in October to 20 years in jail for crimes related to an alleged insurrection—a case that human rights groups say was trumped up by the government—it appears the same government is now using Mr. Sonando for its own political ends.

While Mr. Sonando could never be accused of being a supporter of Prime Minister Hun Sen, he also has little time for the current leaders or tactics of the country’s political opposition.

Speaking by phone from Paris, where he said he is raising funds to help Cambodia’s poor, Mr. Sonando said Tuesday that he remains frustrated by the opposition party.

“For four mandates, the opposition party has not been successful in pushing the government to implement the rule of law. The opposition has to protest until the government changes what it has done to break the law or violate people’s rights,” said Mr. Sonando, adding that simply speaking out in the me­dia or on the floor of the National Assem­bly was not enough to compel the CPP to change its ways.

“Opposition leaders must not be afraid of being jailed or beaten,” Mr. Sonando added.

Since 2009, Mr. Rainsy, who is president of the CNRP, has been in self-imposed exile to avoid an 11-year jail sentence for crimes including incitement and disinformation, which he claims are politically motivated.

Mr. Sonando also said that he was disappointed that threats by the CNRP to boycott the national election on the grounds of a lack of reform inside the National Elec­tion Com­mittee (NEC) never materialized.

“The opposition party demanded that the government reform the NEC and told the public that if the NEC doesn’t change they would not join the election, but now they have joined the NEC. So now they support the elections,” he said.

Independent political analyst Chea Vannath said the government is likely distributing the recording featuring Mr. Sonando in order to influence the political convictions of the rural Cambodians he is already popular with.

“I think that Mam Sonando has his own constituency—people who listen to him. So by [broadcasting his critiques of the opposition], what they [the government] are trying to do is use different people who have influence in the society against each other,” she said.

Regarding the seeming contradiction of promoting the views of a man who was convicted of leading an insurrection against the government less than a year earlier, Ms. Vannath said that for the CPP-controlled government “the ends justify the means.”

“The target is not to promote Mam Sonando, the target is to counterbalance the influence of the opposition party,” she said.

Ek Tha, spokesman for the Council of Minister’s Press and Quick Reaction Unit, which has been distributing the audio segments of Mr. Sonando, declined to comment Tuesday, as did Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan.

Satya Rak, the Bayon radio presenter who has produced and broadcast three audio recordings portraying opposition infighting over the past two weeks, said that he chose to include the commentary of Mr. Sonando because it encapsulates what he said is the struggle for power within the opposition.

“I put in Mr. Sonando’s comments in the audio segment because I think what Sonando said about the character and behavior of Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha is true,” he said. “Mr. Sonando had said that the opposition party could not be strong when they fight within their party,” he added.

In March, following international and national outcry, the Court of Appeal overturned Mr. Sonando’s conviction on insurrection and incitement charges, cut his 20 years sentence to just five years and then promptly suspended that sentence too, ordering his immediate release.

Mr. Sonando was also imprisoned for three months in October, 2005, after he was arrested for defaming Mr. Hun Sen by airing interviews highly critical of the government’s border agreement with Vietnam, in which an interviewee accused the government of selling swaths of the country to Vietnam.

“Mam Sonando has been quite popular since he was put in jail, so any political party would gain a lot of advantage by having him on their side, or by having him criticize another political party,” said Moeun Chhean Nariddh, the director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies. “He has reached out to grassroots level people…. He has become in a sense the voice of the voiceless many.”

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