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Detained former opposition chief meets with Cambodia’s Hun Sen

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen met with the detained former leader of a dissolved opposition party on Sunday, weeks before local elections are to be held in the Southeast Asian nation.

Few details were released about what the two men discussed, but one Cambodian political analyst said that the meeting was unlikely to lead to any significant changes in the political climate of the country, where opposition candidates continue to face harassment.

Kem Sokha, who led the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), faces up to 30 years in jail on treason charges over an alleged plot purportedly backed by the United States to overthrow Hun Sen and his government. Kem Sokha and the prime minister met in Kampong Cham province during the funeral of Hun Neng, Hun Sen’s 72-year-old brother, who died on May 5.

For about four hours, the two discussed national policy issues, including measures to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the status of the vaccination campaign and post-crisis economic recovery, Muth Chantha, a close aide to Kem Sokha, told news website Cambodianess.

It was not disclosed whether Kem Sokha, whose trial resumed in January after two years of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, asked Hun Sen to help resolve his case.

“Today, I and my colleagues went to pay homage to the soul of Samdach Oudom Tepnhan [honorific] Hun Neng at his home in Kampong Cham. On that occasion, I and Samdach Techo Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia, discussed many issues, especially the country’s issues. And the Khmer people too,” Kem Sokha said on his Facebook page on Sunday.

The funeral meeting comes days before Hun Sen begins a rare visit to Washington for a summit hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden for leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The U.S. has been critical of the rapid shift to authoritarian rule in Cambodia that began with the arrest of Sokha in September 2017 and the banning of the CNRP two months later.

Exiled political analyst Kim Sok said while the meeting was unexpected, he does not believe that it will lead to Hun Sen allowing Kem Sokha to participate in local commune elections on June 5.

“It may be just a slight relaxation, for example, to allow Kem Sokha to meet his supporters without such restrictions,” he told RFA. “But will there be a political solution to release Kem Sokha so he can lead the CNRP again or launch a new party to engage in politics to his full potential?

“This is not the time for Hun Sen to be thinking that he should give in to Kem Sokha, or else he should wait until he [Sokha] is no longer a rival to him and his son,” Kim Sok said, referring to Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, an army commander expected eventually to succeed his long-ruling father.

Since being charged with treason, Kem Sokha has met with Hun Sen one other time. The two talked for almost an hour at Hun Sen’s residence on May 5, 2020, when Sokha paid his respects to the prime minister’s deceased mother-in-law.

Harassment of Candlelight Party activists

Sunday’s meeting came two days after the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the Cambodian government to stop persecuting political opponents ahead of the local elections next month and a national election in 2023.

But there is no indication that the two are related, and Thach Setha, vice president of the Candlelight Party, a small opposition party that has itself been gaining support, told RFA on Monday that officials from Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) continue to harass candidates and activists from his party.

Khem Monikosal, president of the Candlelight Party in Pailin province, was called by a local prosecutor to appear in court for second time on May 11 to face incitement and discrimination charges in connection with a Facebook post criticizing government health care workers for not performing their duties in a COVID-19 quarantine center in 2021.

Khem Monikosal, a former health officer, told RFA that the summons was meant to intimidate him after authorities fired him from his post in 2021.

“We are busy with political activities, organizing work, but the court summoned me twice, causing a lot of trouble,” he said. “This is an oppression of political party activists, and especially of me because I represent the Candlelight Party in Pailin.”

Chea Sa, deputy prosecutor of the Pailin Provincial Court, told RFA that he could not comment on the matter.

The Koh Kong Provincial Court meanwhile issued a summons for Pal Kep, a Candlelight Party member running to be Stung Veng commune chief, in response to a complaint filed by CPP lawyers. The complaint accuses Pal Kep of forgery, falsifying public documents to endanger national security, public defamation and illegal election campaign activity.

Pal Kep said he applied for an adjournment with the provincial court on Monday. He said the summons is an effort to intimidate him.

“The accusation against me is very cruel, but I will use my legal rights to protect me and to confront this,” he said.

Wai Phirum, deputy governor of the Koh Kong Provincial Court, denied that the case was politically motivated, in an interview with RFA.

RFA could not reach the CCP’s Koh Kong lawyers for comment.

Ny Sokha, president of the rights group Adhoc, said that the cases against the Candlelight Party members was meant as a political threat.

“We think that in order to create a pre-election atmosphere in which political parties can compete in a free and fearless [arena], the court system should not be used to charge or detain or intimidate for political motivation purposes,” he said.

Translated by Sum Sok Ry for RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.