The way commentator Kim Sok tells it, he has no choice but to speak out against the government.
“I cannot choose any other way than this that is better for me,” Mr. Sok said on Thursday evening, less than 24 hours before authorities hauled him to jail over incitement and defamation charges after complaints were filed by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“I cannot give up everything that I have worked for for so many years.”
But Mr. Sok’s work history, which includes a five-year stint as a contractor for the Information Ministry, supposed telephone calls with the prime minister and close ties to disgraced former South Korean ambassador Suth Dina, provides as many questions as answers.
Why did the analyst, who once chided others for insulting the prime minister, suddenly go on the offensive over the past several months? Why did he abruptly quit the foundation for analysts he helped start, soon after the murder of social scientist Kem Ley? And why did he seem to be having such a good time, grinning through interviews last week in the face of a $500,000 lawsuit filed by the Prime Minister for blaming the ruling party for murdering Kem Ley?
Mr. Sok could not be reached from prison on Sunday. But on Thursday, he described a political background that began in the late 1990s, as a mathematics student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Mr. Sok said he was politicized by the realization that his goal of becoming a university professor would be off-limits unless he joined the CPP. Instead, Mr. Sok joined the youth movements aligned with Funcinpec, the royalist party headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
As an official in the political party born out of that movement, the Khmer Front Party (KFP), Mr. Sok was among the country’s most prominent youth activists. He was a spokesman for the ultranationalist party, which was formed in 2003 with a platform composed largely of resisting what it described as the Vietnamese puppet regime in Phnom Penh.
“I joined the social movement. I joined the border movement. I joined the justice movement,” Mr. Sok said last week.
In 2006, the KFP allowed itself to be co-opted by Prince Ranariddh, who was preparing a return to politics but struggling to register a party. The prince would become president of the renamed Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP) in 2006.
Cham Bunthet, a political analyst who has worked with Mr. Sok, said the commentator served as a personal assistant to the prince and was on the new party’s public relations team.
Internal squabbles yet again consumed the prince’s party, however. In January 2009, Mr. Sok was among a group of KFP founders who seized the NRP headquarters in a leadership dispute after Prince Ranariddh again quit politics.
“We will control the headquarters temporarily until the leadership comes to solve the problems,” he said at the time.
With the prince out of the party and little left to fight for, Mr. Sok said that he and Mr. Dina, his longtime comrade, negotiated directly with the prime minister over the telephone to secure government employment for former KFP members.
Mr. Hun Sen “proposed to us [to] stop acting against the 7th of January,” Mr. Sok said, citing the day in 1979 when Vietnamese forces toppled the Khmer Rouge regime, which opposition parties have long used as a rallying cry against the Vietnamese-installed government.
In exchange, Mr. Sok was awarded an advisory role with the Information Ministry. Mr. Sok said he did not follow his colleague Mr. Dina and other former royalists to officially join the ranks of the CPP.
Mr. Hun Sen “wanted us to join the CPP,” Mr. Sok said. “But we reminded him that we agreed to join the government, not the CPP.”
Mr. Dina went on to become a personal adviser to Mr. Hun Sen and then Cambodia’s ambassador to South Korea. He was sentenced to five years in prison last year amid allegations of vast corruption during his tenure in Seoul.
Mr. Sok’s stay in the Information Ministry was more banal and short-lived.
“They didn’t give me anything to work on,” Mr. Sok said, adding that he also butted heads with Information Minister
Khieu Kanharith during the three occasions they met.
“I did my job. My job was adviser,” he said with a laugh.
A ministry spokesman confirmed that Mr. Sok worked as a consultant between 2008 and 2013, when his contract went unrenewed.
Mr. Sok married in 2011 and had a daughter. He later won a scholarship to study business in China, graduating with an MBA in finance from Beijing Jiaotong University in 2015.
The former politico said he saw economics as central to political and social machinations, and was wowed by the Chinese economic engine. But he was equally disenchanted with the restrictions on social activities under the communist regime.
“We should not copy China,” he said. “I want to see the country have democracy.”
Until last year, Mr. Sok was more likely to chide CNRP supporters than fans of the CPP on his busy Facebook account, which was also packed with links to business advice and football articles.
Mr. Hun Sen’s son Hun Many is a “hope for Cambodia’s future,” he wrote in a November 2015 post. Mr. Sok also defended the prime minister when a Facebook user photoshopped Mr. Hun Sen to show a severed forearm.
“I am very disappointed that a Cambodian youth created this bad perception of his country’s own prime minister,” he wrote in December 2015. “You should share your critical ideas on him of the point that you disagreed but you should not create an insulting picture.”
Little more than a year later, Mr. Sok was on radio call-in shows likening the ruling party to mad dogs and blaming government-affiliated networks for the killing of Kem Ley.
“If you want to take it to the boiling point, let’s do it,” he goaded Mr. Hun Sen on Thursday.
Mr. Bunthet, the analyst, said Mr. Sok seemed to have recently changed course.
In past encounters, “he had a lot of good solutions, good ideas,” he said. “But lately, when he talks to the media, he just became very reckless.”
Those media appearances only started in the last two or three months, according to CNRP youth leader Hing Soksan, who also has roots in the youth movement of the 2000s and co-founded the Young Analyst Foundation with Mr. Sok last year.
Mr. Soksan said his counterpart had only attended two or three meetings before forgoing the group, which was renamed the Kem Ley Foundation after the analyst’s July killing.
“Mr. Kim Sok left the group without reason, without explanation or anything” after the murder, Mr. Soksan said on Sunday. “We tried to contact him, to ask why he left the foundation…but no response.”
Hang Vitou, another member of the foundation, said Mr. Sok had drawn on rich contacts during his short time as an analyst.
“Before he went to study in China, he had a lot of friends in the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Finance, and he had a lot of friends who work in the ministries,” he said, downplaying rumors he’d heard that Mr. Sok “is really a spy of the government.”
“We know that he is a good man. He is very honest,” Mr. Vitou said. “Kim Sok is very good at analyzing the politics and the political commentary, but I think that sometimes he is very extreme, and that is very dangerous for him.”
On Thursday, Mr. Sok showed little signs of backing down, casting his outspokenness as intentional and meant to inspire.
“My help is to say my opinion,” he said. “This is my strategy: to say everything.”
(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy)
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