Authorities jailed Mam Sonando three times over the past 15 years as he pushed for social changes through his popular radio station, demonstrations and also his own political party.
Despite this, the 76-year-old has now made a return to the political arena after stepping down from his Beehive Democratic Society Party last year, when he cited poor results in the commune elections.
Sitting on a sofa with a serious look on his face, Mr Sonando says he never expected to make a return to politics, but felt obliged to do so due to political circumstances within the Kingdom.
“If the CNRP still had political life today, I would not return to politics,” he says. “If they were still around, I would be dividing votes on the democratic side, but after the CNRP was dissolved, I could not remain silent and I had to come back to join and promote democrats and help detainees.”
Former opposition CNRP leader Kem Sokha was jailed in September on treason charges and the party was accused of conspiring with the US to topple the government through a colour revolution.
Afterwards, the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 of its senior officials from politics for five years.
With the national election nearing in July, Mr Sonando sees himself as the new face of democrats, and is confident his party can gain seats in the National Assembly despite never doing so before.
“We have to be courageous and make sacrifices to demand the rights and freedoms for the people,” he says. “I do not want power to serve myself or my own party. The power I want is to commit to making Cambodia a clear rule of law country.”
The BSDP has registered candidates to stand for election on July 29, including female candidates in 14 provinces, and male candidates in 11 provinces and the capital.
“We are fielding a lot of female candidate because no other party has ever pushed the agenda to get women more involved in politics,” he says.
“Another important thing is that we have principles and we discuss problems to find common solutions in line with those principles and in accordance with party policy,” he adds.
Mr Sonando says the BSDP has seven main principals, including helping to restore the livelihoods of poor villagers, changing the 50-plus-one National Assembly vote system to a two-thirds system, implementing a two-term limit for the prime minister position, stripping the right from lawmakers and senators to have private businesses while in office, reviewing border demarcations, addressing deforestation, illegal sand dredging and destruction of natural resources, and finally, asking the King to grant royal pardons to all political and land dispute prisoners.
The freeing of prisoners of conscious is a particularly poignant issue for Mr Sonando, who looks back at his trouble with the law with a sense of defiance.
“My imprisonment had no cause,” he says. “I was jailed many times just because I dared to open my mouth and criticize those in power. Therefore, they put me in prison in order to close my mouth.”
Mr Sonando was first imprisoned in 2003, when he was arrested on charges of inciting protests against the Thai embassy in Cambodia. He was later pardoned by the King.
In 2005, he was again imprisoned for nearly 100 days for allegedly publishing false information in an interview with the president of a France-based NGO in relation to Cambodia’s 1985 border treaty that Prime Minister Hun Sen signed with Vietnam.
Lastly, Mr Sonando was jailed in July 2012 after secessionist accusations were leveled against him. However, the Appeal Court later dropped the charges in March 2013.
Mr Sonando was educated in Cambodia, graduating from high school in 1964 and then leaving for France, where he continued his studies and earned a Bachelor Degree in sociology.
In 1994, he returned to Cambodia after the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia restored democratic elections.
He then launched his radio station, slowing gaining popularity throughout the country and leading to the creation of the BSDP in 1997.
Despite his party never earning any significant roles within the government, Mr Sonando has pushed forward while also distancing himself from former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who lives in self-imposed exile to evade a slew of court cases.
Mr Sonando says that Mr Rainsy’s recent calls on the public to boycott the upcoming national election are setbacks for democracy in the country.
“If people who love justice and democracy do not support democrats to compete for National Assembly seats, it means that they just want to let the opponent win easily,” he says, before turning to an analogy to describe Mr Rainsy’s “selfish” boycott calls.
“A pot of rice, if he cannot eat it, he wants to kick it and destroy it to prevent others from eating form it as well,” he says.
Chan Bunhorn, former secretary-general with BSDP, says that he was the third to resign from the potion with the party, hinting that Mr Sonando likes to talk about pushing for democratic change, but fails to follow through on his promises.
“I was the third secretary-general to resign,” he says. “So, as you can likely guess, I do not want to talk about it much. However, if there is only theory, but there is no practice, it’s impossible to do politics.”
San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, says that the BSDP seems to not have much support from the people and notes that it is likely due to poor leadership.
“In general, I never paid attention to this political party because of the way that they lead the party – the political leadership of this party is not attractive,” he says.