If we could not prevent Kem Sokha on time, then the whole country could be devastated,” said Prime Minister Hun Sen at a gathering of about 4,000 garment workers last Sunday.
Mr Sokha, the president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested on September 3 in “flagrante delicto” or “red-handed” by police officers.
He was later charged with the act of “treason” by the Cambodian court in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Code for his “conspiracy with foreign power to harm the country”.
There are claims and counter-claims, arguments and counter-arguments, regarding Mr Sokha’s case. The CNRP believes that the case is “politically motivated”, while the government claims it is in accordance with the rule of law.
On September 6, CNRP members of the National Assembly issued a statement saying Mr Sokha’s case is not “flagrante delicto”, hence his parliamentary immunity has to be respected.
On the same day, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice issued a statement saying the case is “flagrante delicto” and based on the collected evidence it falls into the act of “conspiracy with a foreign country to harm the country”.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation convened a meeting with heads of diplomatic missions to Cambodia to clarify the Cambodian government’s position on the issue and ask other countries not to interfere into Cambodian politics.
Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn proclaimed “the respect for independence, sovereignty, neutrality, Cambodian laws and the non-interference in internal affairs of Cambodia”.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has, several times, urged other countries to stop interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs, while pledging to maintain peace and stability at any cost.
As a sovereign and independent state, the Cambodian government is entitled to its legitimate right to exercise its jurisdiction within the country.
What are the political and strategic implications of Mr Sokha’s case?
Firstly, it is about the plausible “colour revolutions”.
Since the mass protests after the controversial general election in 2013, the government has become vigilant to potential regime change caused by “colour revolutions”.
The political détente and trust were made possible for a short while under the “culture of dialogue” between the two main parties. But in late 2015, political tension and violence reemerged and political trust was eroded.
In November 2016, Mr Hun Sen said: “All the various kinds of armed forces have to ensure that the colour revolution will not occur in Cambodia, which would destroy happiness and peace in the country, and they must also protect the legitimate government.”
Commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, General Pol Saroeun, said in May this year: “Soldiers have to continue to firmly defend peace and development. The army must oppose colour revolutions absolutely and never allow them to occur in Cambodia’s territory.”
Secondly, it is about the possibility of perceived foreign intervention.
The government believes that Mr Sokha’s case relates to a foreign country, referring to the United States. Prime Minister Hun Sen has been criticising the US for violating Cambodian sovereignty and meddling in Cambodian politics.
Mr Hun Sen said at the inauguration of the Jamia Masjid Kompong Cham on September 4: “We just convey our messages to those who made declarations in defence of the culprit that their efforts were only to protect their puppets and to go free of charges. Please respect Cambodian sovereignty.
“They should not resort to using colour revolution means to topple the legitimate Royal Government,” he added.
He reiterated his message at a meeting with workers at the Canadia Industrial Park on September 6, saying: “It was a conspiracy with foreigners to launch what they did. They have not been successful.
“They would do their best to try. It has been fortunate that the Kingdom of Cambodia did not allow what happened in 1970.”
Chheang Vannarith is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.