CNRP leader Kem Sokha is due to appear in court this morning following allegations of treason as Prime Minister Hun Sen steps up his attack on what he says is US interference in Cambodian affairs.
Party leaders met in an emergency session after Mr Sokha’s detention yesterday shortly after midnight. They left silently after their meeting, refusing to comment.
Mr Hun Sen warned the CNRP could be dissolved if it tried to defend Mr Sokha.
The Prime Minister accused the US of being a “third hand” that has been providing assistance to the CNRP to invoke regime change in Cambodia.
Mr Hun Sen also called on foreign countries not to interfere in Cambodia’s domestic affairs, urging the US to clarify its position on the controversy.
Mr Sokha is being held on charges of conspiracy to commit regime change and has been sent to Trapaing Phlong prison in Thbong Khmum province.
His arrest came after undated video footage from Australia-based CBN news was posted on Facebook, appearing to show Mr Sokha saying the US government had been helping him to push for regime change in Cambodia since 1993.
Speaking at a meeting with workers on Koh Pich yesterday, the premier said Mr Sokha had betrayed his country.
“This is a very serious issue and hence the police had to act promptly,” he said, adding the case was a matter of national sovereignty.
In the video footage, Mr Sokha is heard saying millions of people support the CNRP’s strategy for change in the country.
“When I was elected as a lawmaker in 1993, the US government invited me as the first politician to travel to the United States to learn and understand about democracy,” he said. “Since then I have been going there every year.”
He added that in order to make a “change” in Cambodia, the US government told him to resign from politics for a while and create a human rights NGO – the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
“The United States has helped me. They instructed me to follow similar models as those in Yugoslavia and Serbia, which successfully changed the dictatorial leaders there,” Mr Sokha allegedly said, adding that “change” in those countries was successful because of the strategy they used.
The US government told him to follow this example and execute a similar strategy in Cambodia, Mr Sokha added, citing how the leader of the former Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, was forced to step down by mass protest in 2000.
He also said the US hired experts and professors in the US and Canada to provide strategies and advice to him on regime change.
“No one knows about this,” Mr Sokha said. “But because we have moved forward one step, I have to tell brothers and sisters about this strategy. We will succeed if we follow the US.”
Mr Hun Sen has in the past warned that a “third hand” was responsible for violent demonstrations in Phnom Penh in 2013 and 2014, with the aim of pushing for a colour revolution and civil war in Cambodia.
At yesterday’s meeting with workers, Mr Hun Sen said: “We were investigating to find out who was the third hand, and now we have found out who the third hand is. Foreign countries must not interfere in Cambodian affairs, especially the third hand, who used Lon Nol to stage a coup.”
“Now a similar scenario is being propagated,” Mr Hun Sen added.
The Prime Minister said the US should clarify whether its support for regime change in Cambodia came from individuals there or had the backing of the US government.
Hun Manith, Mr Hun Sen’s second son and the general director of the General Directorate of Intelligence said: “Kem Sokha betrayed Cambodia. He confessed to have long-term plans with the United States. Thanks to him, we now know who is the third hand.”
Demonstrations in Phnom Penh to demand an increase in the minimum wage culminated in confrontations with security forces in late 2013 and early 2014.
The situation came to a head on January 3, 2014, when the government sent armed military police to Veng Sreng street, the epicentre of the protests.
According to the government, four protesters were killed and more than 40 were injured during the ensuing violence.
The Prime Minister said Mr Sokha spoke about his strategy with the US to his supporters in Melbourne in December 2013.
“After coming back, there was the violence at Veng Sreng street, which caused deaths and injuries,” he said, adding that Cambodia is not a dictatorship, and is simply defending its sovereignty.
The Prime Minister said the national elections would proceed as usual regardless of what happened with the opposition leader.
Mr Sokha faces between 15 and 30 years in prison if convicted on treason charges.
Justice Ministry spokesman Kim Santepheap said Mr Sokha had been caught red-handed, which allowed authorities to arrest him. He said parliamentary immunity could not protect politicians over such serious offences.
US Embassy spokesman Arend Zwartjes noted the arrest of Mr Sokha “on a number of charges that appear to be politically motivated” with grave concern, but refused to comment further.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the political environment in Cambodia has been worsening since 2014, adding the party is deeply concerned with democratic development in the country.
“We do not need to hold a meeting because we don’t know what else to do if the ruling party wants to lead the country on this path. We can only wait and see what is next in this course of action,” he said.
Mr Sovann ruled out demonstrations over Mr Sokha’s arrest, saying the party only wants to solve the current problems peacefully.
“I think only the international community can deal with this situation,” he said. “We don’t have anything to say.”
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said the arrest of Mr Sokha was a disastrous setback for Cambodia’s human rights.
“The international community, which provides a major percentage of the Cambodian government’s annual budget, should put Hun Sen on notice that if he doesn’t reverse course, it will be impossible to consider next year’s elections free and fair,” he said;
Cambodian journalist and author Chhay Sophal said alliances with western countries have in the past caused civil war in the country, with the legacy of landmines.
A statement from the Civil Society Alliance Forum expressed regret that a political party leader allegedly conspired with a foreign power, using human rights as a pretext to misled Cambodian voters in order to overthrow a legitimate government.
“His action constitutes treason if found guilty by the penal code of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” it said.
Mr Sokha’s daughter Kem Monovithya, who is deputy director-general of public affairs for the CNRP, said last night that several people in plain clothes had tried to arrest CNRP youth leader Hing Soksan at his house.
Mr Soksan was said to have fled to safety. The reason for the attempted arrest was unknown.
Last month, the Foreign Ministry ordered the closure of the National Democratic Institute and the expulsion of its foreign staff on the grounds that it was not registered with the government.
A leaked document apparently showed the NDI helped provide the CNRP with a strategy to win the national election in 2018.