Kem Sokha, the leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (C.N.R.P.), was arrested during the early hours of Sept. 3, reportedly without a warrant and in violation of his parliamentary immunity. Dozens of police officers surrounded his home in Phnom Penh, while a group of armed men forced their way inside.
He has since been charged with treason — and with conspiring with foreigners to overthrow the Hun Sen government — based on a 2013 speech in which he described wanting to bring peaceful, democratic change to Cambodia and receiving advice from American experts. On Monday, during a session that the C.N.R.P. boycotted, the National Assembly voted to allow the case against Mr. Kem Sokha to proceed, implicitly lifting his immunity.
Government-aligned media have named more purported participants in the spurious plot, intensifying the already palpable fear that anyone in our party, or anyone seen as supporting it, could be the government’s next target. Several legislators who are senior members of the C.N.R.P. have left the country after being called co-conspirators.
The independent media, for their part, are being wiped out. The government is invoking specious tax bills or contractual violations to muzzle outlets like The Cambodia Daily, Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and Voice of Democracy, which have a history of reporting on controversial issues like expropriation, deforestation and government corruption.
Last month, the local office of the National Democratic Institute, an American pro-democracy nonprofit organization, was abruptly ordered to shut down. Other NGOs are being threatened or bullied into silence.
Over the past several years, a spate of laws has been passed — over objections from the C.N.R.P. and civil society groups — restricting the legitimate activities of political parties, trade unions and NGOs and associations. The assassination of the outspoken political analyst Kem Ley over a year ago has yet to be properly investigated.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party is cracking down ahead of the general election scheduled for next year because it fears for its prospects then. In the last general election in 2013, the C.P.P. won 68 seats in the National Assembly — down from 90 — and the C.N.R.P. won 55, a record for an opposition party. We also made impressive gains in local elections in June, winning control of 489 of the country’s 1,646 communes — up from the combined 40 communes (out of 1,633) won in the 2012 local elections by the two opposition parties that later merged to form the C.N.R.P.
These results may seem modest, but they are remarkable considering the C.P.P.’s lock on state resources and the increasingly repressive political climate in Cambodia. And they prove that the C.N.R.P. appeals not only to the educated and the urban, but also to the rural poor, long the beneficiaries of the C.P.P.’s vast patronage networks.
If convicted of treason, Mr. Kem Sokha faces up to 30 years in prison. Under recent revisions to the law on political parties — which ban parties from having leaders with criminal records — the C.N.R.P. would then be dissolved. These legal changes have already forced the C.N.R.P.’s former president, Sam Rainsy, to resign because he is the subject of several (dubious) defamation cases.
The government’s game is transparent. If Mr. Kem Sokha stays at the helm of the C.N.R.P., the party risks being dismantled. If he steps down, more bogus charges will be brought against our next leader — and then the next. Succumbing to the C.P.P.’s threat to disband us unless we abandon our current leadership would be a grave political error. We refuse to be complicit in this assault on democracy.
C.N.R.P. members and lawmakers have weathered various onslaughts before, including arbitrary arrests and beatings at the hands of the prime minister’s own military bodyguards. We have stood our ground out of faith in the power of the democratic process. Should our party be dissolved, the next general election would be a farce, and the next government, a fraud.
Our resolve is steadfast, but we need all the help we can get. We have been heartened by the support of governments, lawmakers and organizations around the world — the United States, Britain, the European Union, the United Nations — that have criticized Mr. Kem Sokha’s unjustified arrest. Yet we need concrete help, too.
The Hun Sen government may feel emboldened to crack down on all forms of opposition, even at the risk of alienating its partners in the West, because China has lavished military aid and investments on Cambodia in recent years: According to an article published in The Economist earlier this year, Chinese money accounted for 70 percent of total industrial investment in Cambodia between 2011 and 2015. But Western countries still have leverage here.
Between about 30 percent and 40 percent of the Cambodian government’s budget is still covered by foreign development assistance, including from European Union countries, the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea. Cambodia also benefits from preferential trade terms, such as most-favored-nation status with the United States and under the European Union’s “Everything But Arms” initiative. The top destinations for Cambodia’s exports are the United States, Britain and Germany.
Western governments should use this economic leverage to urge the Hun Sen administration to respect Cambodians’ political freedoms, setting clear conditions and red lines for further budget assistance and further preferential trade access that would require the protection of human rights.
The private sector also has a role to play, particularly large companies involved with Cambodia’s garment sector. Textiles and footwear account for 80 percent of the country’s total export revenue, and some 700,000 jobs. Major buyers like H&M, Adidas and Zara have managed to influence government policy in Cambodia in the past, including to secure a higher minimum wage and various protections for workers in the garment industry. Now they should use their clout to help protect democracy in Cambodia. After all, doing so would also help protect the stability of the country and, by the same token, their business interests.
The Cambodian people are hungry for political change. They proved it during the general election in 2013, and again in local elections a few months ago. I see it and hear it whenever I speak to my constituents in the western province of Battambang. They ask for more jobs, fair wages, decent prices for their crops, access to health care and relief from the crushing weight of microcredit loans.
Cambodia’s voters must be allowed to choose their leaders next year in a process that is free and fair, and credible. Mr. Kem Sokha must be freed — immediately and unconditionally.
Mu Sochua is a vice president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party and a member of the National Assembly of Cambodia.