Hun Sen Is Keeping Kem Sokha Hostage. Will the West Respond to His Threats?

The Cambodian leader is using his rival as a bargaining chip in anticipation of his clean sweep at July’s national election.

It can never be said of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen that he doesn’t let the public in on his dictatorial thinking. Maybe it’s the way his mind works: his inclination to talk without notes; to riff through speeches. Maybe it’s because he seems to still enjoy giving almost daily, hours-long addresses when inaugurating new roads or overpasses or schools or attending just about any public event. Either way, wait long enough and he’ll contradict an earlier comment with the actual truth.

Speaking on May 22, he had this to say about Kem Sokha, the opposition leader who was detained in 2017 on treason charges and convicted of it (and sentenced to house detention for 27 years) this March. “I was about to ask the King and the court to pardon and release Sokha,” he said, “but I could not do so because of some untrustworthy foreign diplomats who always shake my hands but meet and invite Sokha to visit their embassies secretly…I do not trust diplomats who insult me or the sovereignty of the country.”

If the Khmer Times quoted him correctly (and there’s precedent for a newspaper being banned if it didn’t) then the prime minister has just admitted to the peculiar. Presumably, he thinks that Kem Sokha should be pardoned. Why else was he “about to ask” the King to do so? And that means Hun Sen also presumably thinks that Kem Sokha’s 27-year sentence under house arrest is unnecessary and that he should be given back his liberty. Most importantly, he also presumably thinks that Kem Sokha no longer harbors the “treasonous” ambitions for which he was sentenced. So, Hun Sen has established that Kem Sokha should be walking freely around Phnom Penh today.

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