Cambodia’s dissolved opposition party’s leader was freed from house arrest after more than 26 months in detention, just a day after several exiled politicians from his party failed to launch a planned pro-democracy march back into the country.

Kem Sokha, who was arrested on politicized treason charges in September 2017, had the restrictions on his detention relaxed on Sunday (November 10), in what some saw a goodwill gesture by Prime Minister Hun Sen to ease international criticism of his de facto one-party government.

Sam Rainsy, who along with Kem Sokha co-founded the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2012, had planned for months to lead party members on a climatic march back into Cambodia across the Thai border on November 9.

He and his political allies were prevented from doing so after the Thai government denied his entrance. He and several other CNRP leaders are now being held up in Malaysia.

“As an innocent person who suffered detention for two years without being guilty, I still continue to demand to drop the charges against me,” Kem Sokha wrote on his Facebook page after his release. “Today’s decision is a first step, but I, as well as many other Cambodians who have lost their political rights, still need real solutions and justice.”

Hun Sen’s decision to release Kem Sokha from house arrest is likely intended to assuage the United States and European Union, the latter of which will soon publish a preliminary report on whether to remove Cambodia from its Everything But Arms (EBA) preferential trade scheme. Cambodia’s loss of the duty-free status would devastate the export-oriented garment industry in particular.

Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha (L) is arrested and escorted by police at his home in Phnom Penh on September 3, 2017. Photo: AFP/Stringer
Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha (L) is arrested and escorted by police at his home in Phnom Penh on September 3, 2017. Photo: AFP/Stringer

The move was received with guarded optimism by the US. “This is a step in the right direction, but for genuine progress [Kem Sokha’s] full rights and freedoms must be restored,” US Ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy wrote on Twitter.

The CNRP, the country’s largest opposition party which won around 44% of the popular vote at the 2013 general election and 2017 local commune elections, was dissolved in November 2017 after being accused of conspiring with the US to launch a “color revolution” and overthrow the government.

With the CNRP off the ballot, Hun Sen’s long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all 125 parliamentary seats in the 2018 general election, securing complete political control. Both the US and EU described the election as illegitimate and not reflective of the popular will.

Both have threatened to impose stiff sanctions on Hun Sen’s government unless it releases Kem Sokha, reinstates the CNRP as a legal entity and engages in meaningful political reforms.

Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson described Kem Sokha’s release from house detention as “a last-minute attempt to deflect European anger”, while Amnesty International called it a “minor reprieve for Kem Sokha [that] cannot mask the ongoing, severe repression of human rights in Cambodia.”

Kem Sokha has not been acquitted of the treason charge, is forbidden from leaving the country and remains banned from politics, an ambiguous sanction which could include making political comments. There is still no indication of when his trial will be held.

Since late 2018, Kem Sokha had been held under “house arrest”, a specification which previously didn’t exist in Cambodia and which the government had to invent to legally justify his prolonged detention without trial.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers an address during an opening ceremony for the Khmer New Year at Bayon temple at the Angkor complex in Siem Reap province on April 13, 2018.Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers an address during the Khmer New Year at Bayon temple at the Angkor complex in Siem Reap province, April 13, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The US and French ambassadors plan to meet with Kem Sokha at his home on Monday (November 11), the first time foreign officials have been allowed to see him since his 2017 arrest.

There are questions about his health, as his lawyers have said for months that he has not been able to access proper treatment while under house arrest. Indeed, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said that the eased restrictions on his detention were granted for health reasons.

All this came a day after the other leaders of the CNRP had planned to lead a decisive return to Cambodia to mark the country’s Independence Day.

Hun Sen had promised that he would immediately arrest the opposition figures on various political charges if they returned to Cambodia and claimed they aimed to launch a coup.

Last week, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, expressed “grave concerns” of the arrest of at least 52 CNRP activists in recent months, which has brought the number of CNRP members arrested since the beginning of this year to over 200.

On November 7, a bipartisan group of US Senators introduced a resolution calling for the peaceful return of the CNRP leaders to be allowed. But the Independence Day march, despite much fanfare, failed to materialize.

Hun Sen initially joked that Sam Rainsy would never dare such a return, though his stance hardened days before November 9. Dozens of CNRP activists have been arrested in Cambodia since August, while Hun Sen threatened to punish harshly anyone who joined the CNRP’s march.

Cambodian opposition politician Sam Rainsy addresses media in a file photo. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/ Kimlong Meng

On November 7, Sam Rainsy was prevented from flying from France to an unknown Asian destination believed to be Bangkok. Mu Sochua, the CNRP’s vice-president, was denied access to Thailand last month, and was then briefly detained at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on November 7.

Sam Rainsy said that Kem Sokha’s “release” from house arrest was a “step in the right direction,” but “for Hun Sen’s first positive gesture – attributable to increasing internal and external pressure – to be meaningful the ludicrous ‘treason’ charge levied against Kem Sokha must be dropped, thus eliminating all restrictions on his freedom.”

Sam Rainsy and the other exiled CNRP leaders now held up in Malaysia still appear to be optimistic about returning to Cambodia, and it is thought that they are meeting Malaysian politicians on Tuesday to discuss ways of doing so.

However, on November 9, Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng wrote on Facebook that the government had never formally banned Sam Rainsy and the other exiled CNRP leaders from returning to the country, a bizarre claim considering its actions in recent months.

Not only did Phnom Penh ask other Southeast Asian governments to not allow the CNRP leaders to land in their countries, which most publicly agreed, it also warned private airlines that they would be punished if they allowed the opposition politicians to board flights to Cambodia.

Almost as soon as Kem Sokha was arrested in late 2017, analysts have speculated that Hun Sen will choose to release him when it is most politically expedient. There is thus now reason to believe that Phnom Penh is trying to row back and cynically win the international community’s support.

Hun Sen and other senior Cambodian government officials have met with US Ambassador Murphy increasingly often in recent weeks, and there are suggestions that Washington is moderating its previous hardline stance on country’s democratic backsliding.

US Ambassador to Cambodia W Patrick Murphy at a press event in Phnom Penh in 2017. Photo: Twitter

While some US politicians are genuinely concerned about the state of Cambodian democracy, analysts say that most in Washington are more interested in Cambodia because it is now China’s closest ally in the region.

As Donald Trump’s administration has ramped up its contest with China for regional influence, US officials have eyed Cambodia as an important strategic country in the Asia-Pacific, one for which some form of relationship must be maintained.

As such, Kem Sokha’s tentative release may not be the only goodwill gesture Hun Sen extends to the US and EU in the months ahead.
Divide and rule politics may also be in play. Hun Sen may reckon that freeing Kem Sokha from house arrest will sow deeper divisions within the opposition movement.

Kem Sokha’s CNRP camp won’t likely want to escalate tensions now that he is able to travel freely in Cambodia for the first time in two years and receive proper medical care – an allowance that Hun Sen could quickly retract.

Sam Rainsy’s camp, however, is expected to press ahead with their planned return, as beating a hasty retreat after so much build-up, media coverage and general fanfare would represent a loss of face and could erode morale among his supporters.

If Sam Rainsy does return and is immediately arrested, as Hun Sen has promised, the two opposition leaders’ positions would be swapped, with Sam Rainsy in prison and Kem Sokha tentatively free.

Some analysts are already predicting that Kem Sokha might soon be offered a royal pardon and allowed by Hun Sen to return to politics.

If the same clemency isn’t offered to Sam Rainsy and his faction, as seems unlikely, then one of the two CNRP co-leaders could be forced to begrudgingly bow out of politics for the sake of the party. And without the political pair working in tandem, the CNRP will likely never be as popular as it once was.