Rights Activist Returns Amid Rumors of Arrest

Kem Sokha, the director of the Cam­bodian Center for Human Rights, returned to Phnom Penh on Tuesday evening from Bang­kok saying that with the threat of ar­rest forcing many to flee, he had no choice but to return.

Kem Sokha denied he fled to Thai­land on Sunday, claiming in­stead that he had pre-arranged meet­ings with embassies there.

“I cannot stay outside the country because there are too many peo­ple who are outside,” he said on his return, adding that he has ne­v­er accused the government of sell­ing land to foreign countries.

“I come back not to work on the bor­der issue but on democracy,” he said.

For decades, ordinary Cam­bo­di­ans have watched politicians, ac­ti­v­ists and others flee the country at the hint of real or imagined danger, and Kem Sokha said colleagues, observers and politicians from other countries often ask why flight is so common in Cam­bo­dia.

“If we leave every time, it’s not good,” he said. “But if we stay every time, then it’s not good.”

Every situation is different, but for many, the condition of Cam­bo­dia’s prisons and the lack of independence in the judiciary were ma­jor factors for deciding to flee, Kem Sokha said.

At some point, Kem Sokha add­ed, Cambodians will start standing up for their rights and risk jail time for their beliefs, but he felt that this was still two or three years off.

“Cambodian people are poor,” he said. “They are tired and scared. And some don’t trust anyone.”

Chea Vannath, president of the Cen­ter for Social Development, said Cambodian culture and the coun­try’s recent history of com­pro­mise at all levels are factors that lead to flight.

“They say if there is a fire, let the fire extinguish itself,” she said.

Every person must make their own decisions on whether to leave the country, and while some have de­cided to stay, there isn’t necessarily benefit in being jailed, she add­ed.

In order to get international at­ten­tion, she said, “you need to get a critical mass” of people who are in jail.

Until then, individuals who are sent to jail are often kept under tight control and there is little to no com­munication with the outside world to allow them to continue re­lay­ing their message, she said.

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said he understood why some people leave the country, but added that it ultimately damages their credibility.

“But we have to be firm,” Son Chhay said. “One has to be committed. If you can only say out a few words and then run, it takes away your credibility. If you want to be a hero, you should act like a hero.”

Ideas, unlike people, can’t be ar­rest­ed, Son Chhay said, and only by facing up to intimidation will ar­bit­rary arrests and imprisonment end.

“At the end, the prime minister will realize he can’t shut everyone up and then he will start to listen,” he said. “We have to make this prac­tice [of using the courts to si­lence critics] no longer viable and they will abandon it.”


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