Despite what appears to be a relative easing of restrictions on the country’s political space, an increasing number of activists from Cambodia’s opposition party are fleeing to Thailand to pursue their goals amid growing pressure from local authorities, they said Friday.
Cambodian authorities arrested Kem Sokha, the former president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in September 2017 and charged him with treason for attempting to overthrow the government, leading the Supreme Court to dissolve his party two months later for its role in the alleged plot.
The moves were part of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Amid international pressure, authorities have partially lifted Kem Sokha’s severe bail requirements while he awaits a trial set for January and released some CNRP activists accused of treason from detention, even as reports suggest that the government continues to target other party supporters, some of whom have been physically assaulted by unknown assailants believed to be associated with the ruling party.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Friday, a CNRP activist from Tboung Khnum province named Try Seang Y said that she and two fellow activists fled to Thailand earlier this month because they are under constant surveillance by authorities and are being prevented from carrying out their work to restore democracy to Cambodia.
Conditions in her home country are growing increasingly difficult for opposition activists, she said, because “Hun Sen has continued to threaten to arrest and detain people who have done nothing to break the law,” while fewer economic opportunities have made it impossible for people like her to earn a living.
But Try Seang Y said that the CNRP activist community in Thailand is strong, and that she believes it will eventually succeed in forcing Hun Sen to return power to the CNRP elected officials who were stripped of their positions after the party was dissolved in 2017.
“If we don’t fight, we will die, so we must fight for change,” she said.
Another CNRP activist from Svay Rieng named Mao Vibol, who also recently fled to Thailand, said more opposition supporters are leaving Cambodia because they want to unite with the party’s leaders in exile to continue their political work.
“We are fleeing because we don’t have any confidence in the judicial system,” he said.
“They are arresting CNRP activists. The activists are afraid, so they cannot stay in the country. This is part of the government’s strategy to force opposition party activists to defect to the ruling party.”
Ruling party spokesman and CPP lawmaker SokEy San told RFA that the government does not persecute its citizens and suggested that the activists simply want to relocate to wealthier nations.
“Why are you afraid if you haven’t committed any crimes,” he asked, adding that “about 16 million people are living [in Cambodia]happily.”
“They are claiming political persecution so that they can resettle in the U.S. and France,” he said.
But SeoungSenKarona, a spokesman for local human rights group Adhoc, said Cambodia continues to endure a political crisis because activists with the opposition party cannot freely express their opinions, and that people have the right to pursue political freedom elsewhere.
“CNRP activists are fleeing so that they can express their political opinions and criticize the government,” he said.
A total of 16 CNRP activists are currently in detention in Cambodia, including one who was ordered released by the country’s Appeals Court after completing his sentence, but who remains in custody. (Source: RFA)