Public engagements in Cambodia aren’t known for their brevity. Officials can make an opening statement to a drowsy seminar last for an hour. Metaphorical anecdotes are recited; motivational stories are expected. But three months for the trial of opposition leader Kem Sokha, which begins today, January 15? Quoted in news reports, Phnom Penh Municipal Court President Taing Sunlay has said that since it is an “important story,” the trial will need to take three months, with sessions held every Wednesday and Thursday. If we assume that the court sits for at least five hours a day, that could be more than 120 hours of hearings.
Exactly what evidence will fill this time remains to be seen; exactly what the outcome will be doesn’t – the courts are in the pockets of the ruling party and judges will decree whatever their political master, Prime Minister Hun Sen, tells them to. So far, the only evidence provided to show Kem Sokha is guilty of treason, a charge for which he was arrested in September 2017, was a speech he gave in Australia in 2013 in which he thanked a US Congress-funded organization for providing support to his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was forcibly dissolved on similar charges in November 2017.
Incidentally, the organization he was probably referring to, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), also gave support to the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for decades. More incidentally, the NDI was ordered to close its Cambodia office on August 23, 2017, the same day it was meeting with a CPP official to finalize plans for a training session with ruling-party members the following day.
At the time of his arrest, CPP media mouthpieces were also throwing around accusations that the US Central Intelligence Agency, Taiwan’s ruling party and independent journalists were also part of this lurid conspiracy, while the Supreme Court, when dissolving the CNRP, called the US-funded Radio Free Asia an “assistant,” and independent local election-monitoring outfit Comfrel a “colluder,” in the CNRP’s supposed revolutionary plan.
No doubt, prosecutors will try to blame Kem Sokha for the actions and language of CNRP members made after his arrest, especially those of the exiled Sam Rainsy, which have occasionally veered toward the insurrectionary. But as I wrote in The Diplomat last month, “those are not Kem Sokha’s words – and unless he was in regular contact with Sam Rainsy during his year in prison and year under house arrest, which the government made sure he wasn’t, then it will be difficult for prosecutors to put those words in his mouth.” Difficult, but they will try.
More interesting will be the prosecutors’ tone on linking Kem Sokha to the United States. After all, his arrest and the CNRP dissolution were specifically tied to Washington being part of a grand conspiracy. Yet the US has toned down its criticism of Phnom Penh since its new ambassador arrived late last year and President Donald Trump wrote to Hun Sen in November, and relations have now warmed to such an extent that Hun Sen has even instructed his cabinet to mend friendships with US officials.
Will prosecutors (directed by government mandarins) now try to fudge their allegations about US involvement in the alleged CNRP coup plot? And, if so, how on earth was there ever a serious CNRP plan for a “color revolution”? It being foreign-backed was a key part of the narrative. And, if not, how will Washington react, after its rather embarrassing attempts at rapprochement? (The US government has presumably reasoned that is threats alone haven’t the power to disentangle Phnom Penh from Beijing’s embrace.)
Amnesty International wasn’t wrong when it called the charges against Kem Sokha “bogus,” nor was his own daughter incorrect when she described the trial as a “farce.” It’s farcical because its motivations are so overt. By lasting more than three months, it will overlap with the February 12 deadline when the European Commission must issue its final report on whether to remove Cambodia from the European Union’s preferential “Everything But Arms” scheme, which grants tariff and quota exemptions on Cambodian imports. Removal from the scheme would severely dent the economy, which is dependent on low-cost manufacturing export and Europe is its largest export market.
Given that Brussels has made Kem Sokha’s release its top priority since 2017, the Cambodian government is trying to hold him as a bargaining chip. If Cambodia isn’t removed from the EBA scheme, prosecutors will no doubt wrap up the trial as quickly as possible; the prevailing opinion is that Kem Sokha will be prosecuted but then swiftly given a royal pardon on the proviso he disengages from politics. But if Cambodia is removed from the EBA scheme, the trial will be used by the ruling party to exact revenge on Brussels and demonstrate its political supremacy.
But it will be a show trial in more ways than one. It will be a who’s-who of who can salivate over the ruling party, and especially Hun Sen, the most. Scholars, media moguls, minor officials, “experts” – just about anyone – will be invited to give their opinion on Kem Sokha and, more important, offer their groveling approval of the generosity and wisdom of Hun Sen, who on Tuesday marked 35 years as prime minister, making him one of the longest-ruling in the world.
It is he, they will argue, who is the reason for the wealth now flowing through the country and whom Cambodian cannot survive without – and it is people like Kem Sokha, they will say, who threaten to tear all of it down. Indeed, when much of the public can now handle the thought of (and desire) someone other than Hun Sen as prime minister, the trial will be used discredit such opinions.
In many ways, the trial will have little to do with Kem Sokha. It will be a useful excuse for Cambodia’s great and good to line up and plead their abiding loyalty yet again to Hun Sen as the benevolent, trusted ruler; as the sine qua non of Cambodian peace and prosperity. And for Hun Sen, it will be an exercise in showing that, after almost three years of political turmoil, he has come out of it more domineering and powerful than before. This is all the more necessary as Hun Sen now plots his own succession and, one imagines, comfortable retirement with the billions of dollars his family has amassed over the decades.