A story by Andrew Nachemson published in the South China Morning Post on April 30 provides a comprehensive summary of Aung San Suu Kyi’s first state visit to Cambodia, which she wrapped up on Wednesday. However, it didn’t tackle a question that was making the rounds: Would Suu Kyi visit Kem Sokha?
The leader of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was arrested for treason in September 2017, just before his party was disbanded by the Supreme Court, and he remains in pretrial detention, obliquely under “house arrest” since September. A date for his trial has still not been set, but he risks being sentenced to decades in jail for a crime that prosecutors have yet to provide any real evidence for.
Quite clearly, the similarities between Kem Sokha and Suu Kyi are blinding: She spent 15 years under house arrest, locked up by Myanmar’s militaristic, dictatorial regime, before being allowed to form a civilian government with her National League for Democracy in 2016. It is the kind of parallel history that makes for an unchallenging headline and would have naturally elicited ample news coverage, giving yet another occasion for international media to consider Kem Sokha’s fate.
But since her electoral victory – except for a brief few months of jubilation when people were still inclined to judge her actions by her reputation, and not the other way around – Suu Kyi has shown herself to be dishonest, self-serving and venal. Some, including people in the United Nations, think she could be tried for crimes against humanity, and I reckon they have a good case.
Since her electoral victory – except for a brief few months of jubilation when people were still inclined to judge her actions by her reputation, and not the other way around – Suu Kyi has shown herself to be dishonest, self-serving and venal
She has defended a genocide against Myanmar’s Muslim minority, the Rohingya, while being the de facto head of a civilian government in power when it took place. I laid out my thoughts on her possible defense in The Diplomat on two occasions in 2017; see “The Cowardice of Aung San Suu Kyi” and “Aung San Suu Kyi: Culpable of ‘Genocide’?” But to put it simply: Either she is powerless, as some claim, in which case she should resign, as she is doing nothing but aggrandizing her military co-rulers, or she has power, in which case she bears some responsibility.
Her government has also clamped down on free speech, including the arrest of two Reuters reporters, who won Pulitzers this year, while her government has also sided with China against Western democracies and imposed the new Lands Management Law that has set back land-rights activism, among other policies.
Kumi Naidoo, the secretary general of Amnesty International, put it last year: “Suu Kyi once asked Amnesty International ‘to not take either your eyes or your mind’ off Myanmar as she led a struggle against the country’s repressive military junta.… And when she ultimately rose to become the de facto leader of Myanmar’s civilian-led government in April 2016, we carried on watching – first with hope, and then with horror.”
In Phnom Penh this week, The Lady, who once stood up against her own country’s military dictatorship, must have been contented that she now has the backing of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, as well as her new chums who sat beside her at the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing earlier in the week, which included Laos’ and Vietnam’s communist rulers, and Thailand’s military junta chief. One wonders if Suu Kyi actually gives any thought to the fact that she has now slithered into the role of a world leader that she used to despise – one who visits a repressive nation and fails to mention its human-rights situation.
It was the role she played in Phnom Penh this week. Suu Kyi must also be thrilled that she is now viewed as the champion of parochial anti-universalists and considered a brave leader who stands up against the democratic, human-rights-supporting West – you know, the same West that dumped accolades on her so quickly while she was under house arrest but now struggle to revoke them all.
Which brings us back to Kem Sokha. It was little surprise that, as she left Phnom Penh, she hadn’t visited him. It isn’t known whether – like the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, who is also in Phnom Penh this week – Suu Kyi tried to meet with Kem Sokha but wasn’t allowed by his jailers. I suspect she didn’t even try.
Indeed, one suspects that Kem Sokha’s liberty and health were far from her thoughts during her trip, which was supposed to broaden Cambodia-Myanmar relations – and put on a show of unity as both governments are being criticized by the West. Nachemson paraphrases Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan as saying that the “main reasons for the bilateral meeting were to reaffirm the principle of non-interference and discuss the potential fallout should the EU revoke the EBA agreement,” referring to a preferential trade deal that the European Union could withdraw Cambodia from in response to its political crackdown.
Suu Kyi’s defenders (and surprisingly she still has many) might claim that her visiting Kem Sokha would have done little to aid his cause. How pragmatism comes to the rescue when the idealist is found to be morally bankrupt! Granted, a visit by Suu Kyi wouldn’t have freed Kem Sokha – but no one ever claimed such a thing. Rather, the briefest of visits, or even an unsuccessful attempt at a visit, would have bolstered public awareness of Kem Sokha’s situation; a former democracy hostage tries meeting current democracy hostage is the kind of angle that hacks live for.
Suu Kyi will have known this, for even in her nobler of days she was as keen a practitioner of public relations as she was a purveyor of democracy (though not all that skilled at either, given that she dropped her democratic credentials almost as quickly as her claques dropped their support of her).
In the end, however, maybe it is a good thing that Suu Kyi didn’t visit Kem Sokha. Maybe his own stoic, patient way of suffering ought not be sullied by the presence of someone who shows how easy it is for a self-proclaimed democrat to abandon their morality and integrity at the first whiff of power. The two politicians certainly share a parallel history; let’s hope not a parallel future.