Return or Limbo: Possible Paths as Kem Sokha Hints at Deal

Kem Sokha leaves the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on January 30, 2020. (Ouch Sony/VOD)
Kem Sokha leaves the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on January 30, 2020. (Ouch Sony/VOD)

Kem Sokha sat at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court last week, close to two years since he last attended a hearing on treason charges filed against him. Dressed in a suit, Sokha was upbeat about the chances of political resolution — a major turnaround from the dissolution of the CNRP in 2017.

“I believe that there will be a solution. Even the ruling party, samdech also want national reconciliation,” he said at the time, using an honorific for Hun Sen.

Speculation has been rife in political circles about whether the resumption of Sokha’s trial — nearly two years after it was stopped following an increase in Covid-19 cases — signaled an imminent political deal that could see the former CNRP president return to politics.

The conjecture was bolstered by the most clear sign of a split between Sokha and exiled CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy. Sokha said in November that Rainsy and his colleagues — an oblique reference to the Candle Light Party, which has re-emerged in the past few months — did not represent him and should stop advocating on his behalf.

A day later, close Sokha allies like Muth Chantha and his daughter Kem Monovithya were on the attack, blasting the Rainsy faction of the party, with Chantha going as far to allege financial impropriety with CNRP funds.

Two months later, Sokha was back at court. He plainly said that a deal should be on the table. 

“I support speeding up the trial to finish soon. I’ve already informed the leader so that I can participate in serving the nation,” Sokha said at the hearing last week.

For those close to Sokha, the wheels of Cambodia’s politics are turning again, though a major breakthrough is still unlikely during this election cycle.

Meach Sovannara, a Sokha associate who was previously convicted for insurrection, said the CNRP leader’s case could only be solved through a political solution.

“To open or close the road, it is up to the government to solve the political deadlock and compromise to allow Mr. Kem Sokha to get the full freedom to participate politically,” he said.

Sovannara predicted that a deal with Sokha would reduce pressure on the ruling party from foreign governments.

As Sokha’s trial has commenced, there are a few options on offer if the CPP wants to deal with the CNRP leader. If the court wants to drop the charges, it would have to send the case file back to the investigating judge who could drop the charges.

The more traditional path would be a quick conviction followed by a request for a royal pardon — this page from the playbook has been used multiple times by the government, including when Sokha was charged with procuring prostitution in 2016 during an alleged extramartial affair with a hairdresser.

Another option before the court would be to convict Sokha and apply mitigating circumstances, which would allow courts to reduce prison sentences of more than 10 years down to two years. Sokha already served a year in pretrial detention after his arrest.

In addition, the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling to bar 118 senior CNRP officials from political activities for five years will lapse in mid-November this year, sparing Sokha the need to request amnesty from the king to return to the political arena.

Former CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrath is squarely in Sokha’s corner. When Sokha was arrested in 2017, Chanrath said he would not shave his beard till Sokha was released from jail. Chanrath has formed his own party with another Sokha close ally, Pol Ham, one of half a dozen CNRP-linked parties hoping to capitalize on the dissolved party’s voter base.

Speaking last week, Chanrath said that based on Hun Sen’s comments, it was unlikely the CNRP president would be released before 2024 — a year after the 2023 national election. This would ensure that Hun Sen’s eldest son Hun Manet could begin taking over the reins from his father.

The CPP last month picked Manet to succeed his father, but refrained from fixing a transition date. Hun Sen has said he would continue as prime minister in 2023, but has said that 2028 could be a transition year for the entire cabinet. He refrained from picking a date for his son’s ascension.

“There will be less international pressure, but at [Sokha’s] age, it will be difficult [for him] to compete with the CPP’s next generation,” Chanrath said, referring to a post-2024 release for Kem Sokha.

Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin said it was the court’s decision to convict or acquit Sokha. He dissociated the CNRP dissolution trial of 2017 from Kem Sokha’s legal affairs.

The opposition was dissolved by the Supreme Court for attempting to overthrow the government in a so-called color revolution with foreign assistance, two months after Sokha was arrested for largely the same accusation.

“The dissolving of the CNRP by the Supreme Court were different issues because of the CNRP leaders and member activists,” Malin said. “So Kem Sokha’s issues are separate, and have nothing to do with each other, even or whether it finds Kem Sokha guilty — it is a different issue.”

For all the political punditry and speculation swirling around CNRP circles, Seng Sary and Lao Mong Hay point out that nothing is predictable when it comes to the government and prime minister.

While it was likely that Sokha would be convicted and have to ask for a pardon, Sary did not want to speculate too much on Sokha’s fate because it was more reliant on political calculations rather than legal reasoning.

“It is very difficult to make a conclusion because the court does not comply with the law,” he said. “So, if we analyze using the law, most of the time it is wrong. So we need to wait to see the emotion and feeling of the ruling party that prepares their strategy for the opposition to walk [again].”

Mong Hay, a longtime observer and one-time adviser to Sokha’s former Human Rights Party, said anything was possible.

“In our country, everything is possible and everything can occur.”

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