Eye on Asia: Kem Sokha's arrest
a blow to Cambodia's democracy

Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha was charged with treason by the government for colluding with the United States government to overthrow the country's prime minister. Kem's arrest comes ahead of Cambodia's 2018 election and represents a blow to the country's journey to democracy.
Kem sohka

Cambodian opposition politician Kem Sokha was charged by a court with treason on 5 September. (Photo: Kem Sokha/Facebook)

Who is Kem Sokha and what is the case against him?  

Kem Sokha is the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country's main opposition party. The CNRP was established in 2012 after Kem and Sam Rainsy, another opposition leader, combined their parties. Last year, Sam was charged by the government with defamation and incitement, forcing him to leave Cambodia and the party. Kem then assumed the presidency of the CNRP in February.

Kem was charged by a court with treason on 5 September, after being arrested at his home two days earlier. He is accused of collusion with the United States against Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, and faces jail time of 15 to 30 years.

If Kem is found guilty of treason, the CNRP could be dissolved, due to a new rule passed earlier this year that permits the state to dissolve any party which is associated with a convicted criminal. However, the CNRP has refused to replace Sokha with a new president, saying that move would represent “an accomplice to the destruction of democracy”. 

New Zealand Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee released a statement on 6 September expressing New Zealand's "deep concern" over Sokha's arrest.

“Mr Sokha is a respected advocate for democracy within Cambodia, and we urge the government in Phnom Penh to be clear and open about the case against him,” said Brownlee. “It is vital for Cambodian democracy that opposition voices are able to be heard.”

Why is this happening now?

Kem's supporters say the charges are intended to weaken the opposition ahead of Cambodia’s national election in July 2018. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, has been escalating pressure against political parties and civil rights organisations, as well as clamping down on media and civil society.

Hun came into politics following the internal purges of the Khmer Rouge, of which he was a member, in 1977. He fled to Vietnam, but returned when the Vietnamese government invaded Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge government was defeated. He became prime minister in 1985, making him one of the longest-serving leaders in the world.

Hun and his party have been accused of political violence and abuse of powers. The results of the 2013 election, which saw him re-elected with a reduced minority, were disputed, sparking anti-government protests that continued into 2014.

When the June 2017 local elections appeared closer than expected, Hun Sen warned civil war could break out if his party lost. Although the government won, the opposition gained numbers in parliament.

The government has also sought to prevent opposition from civil society and the media. Fifteen radio stations have been closed, some airing content from Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. The Cambodia Daily, an independent newspaper, was forced to close on 4 September after the government threatened legal action of a US$6.3-million (NZ$8.67m) tax bill.

After Kem’s arrest, Hun told 10,000 garment factory workers: "Before I was very hesitant of when I shall be leaving office, but after witnessing the treasonous acts of some Cambodians in recent days, I have decided to continue my job for another 10 years."

What is New Zealand’s relationship with Cambodia?

Young mother and son in Cambodia

From 1991 to 2005, New Zealand had 100 military personnel in the UN peacekeeping mission in Cambodia. (Photo: MFAT)

New Zealand’s relationship with Cambodia has grown gradually after the genocide of the 1970s. About 4600 Cambodian refugees were resettled in New Zealand throughout the conflict period that continued till the 1990s.

At the time of the 2013 census, some 8600 New Zealanders identified themselves as Cambodian, with just under half living in Auckland.

From 1991 to 2005, New Zealand had 100 military personnel in the UN peacekeeping mission in Cambodia. New Zealand contributed to the clearance of landmines and unexploded ordinance.

New Zealand continues to contribute development aid. MFAT recently announced a five-year $6.5 million package to support the development of a sustainable horticulture industry, called the Cambodia Quality Horticulture Initiative. Trade between the countries remains small. 

Former New Zealand Governor General Dame Silvia Cartwright was one of three international judges on the Cambodia War Crimes Tribunal, serving on the tribunal from 2007 to 2014.

Sokha visited New Zealand in March earlier this year, and met parliamentarians and officials.

Eye on Asia is a series highlighting a significant stories from the region.