Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen looks at a ballot box after he casted his ballot at a polling station in Kandal province on June 4, 2017. The leader has presided over a harsh crackdown on dissent in recent weeks. Photo: AFP/ Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen looks at a ballot box after he casted his ballot at a polling station in Kandal province on June 4, 2017. The leader has presided over a harsh crackdown on dissent in recent weeks. Photo: AFP/ Tang Chhin Sothy

In an unexpected move with wide-reaching implications, the president of Cambodia’s largest opposition party was arrested and accused of treason on early Sunday morning for allegedly conspiring with the United States to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.

Kem Sokha, who took over as president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in February following previous leader Sam Rainsy’s decision to step down to save the party from dissolution, was arrested by over 100 soldiers at his Phnom Penh home.

He was immediately taken to a remote prison near the Vietnamese border and is being held incommunicado. Independent analysts see the move as a near final blow to Cambodia’s battered and bruised democratic credentials.

Hun Sen said his government had “no choice” but to arrest and detain Kem Sokha based on the treason allegations. If convicted, he faces a potential 30-year prison sentence. The premier also warned that the CNRP would be dissolved if its members try to “protect” him.

“We had the option of arresting only one person or sending troops to crackdown at the CNRP headquarters. Arresting only one person is better,” Hun Sen said on Sunday.

Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha (L) is arrested by police at his home in Phnom Penh on September 3, 2017. Photo: AFP/Stringer 

Kem Sokha’s arrest comes amid a rising crackdown on dissent. The Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper, closed today after the government demanded it pay US$6.3 million in alleged back taxes owed. The 24-year-old publication, owned by Americans and long a thorn in Hun Sen’s side, claims the move is politically-motivated.

Meanwhile, at least 18 radio stations which broadcasted programs by US Congress-funded news outlets Voice of America and Radio Free Asia have been shuttered on alleged violations of their operating contracts.

The closures coincided with a government order for the US State Department-funded National Democratic Institute to leave the country on accusations it had colluded with the CNRP to overthrow the government.

“The authorities have managed to pick-off one target after another,” said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “Now they might as well pick-off the biggest target of them all – short of [self-exiled] Sam Rainsy, who they can’t touch.”

“They want no stone unturned, no more taking chances. Metaphorically, it’s take no prisoners, but the reality is that it’s all about expulsions and taking prisoners,” Sophal Ear added.

Journalists work at the newsroom of The Cambodia Daily newspaper in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, September 3, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

The CNRP had remained conspicuously quiet about the ramped up repression of nongovernmental organizations and media outlets, apparently to protect its members from being directly targeted ahead of next year’s general elections. But Kem Sokha’s arrest was long in the making.

In February, the government rushed amendments to the Law on Political Parties through parliament that gave the state broad and arbitrary power to dissolve political parties for vague reasons. More controversial amendments to the law were made in July.

Moreover, Kem Sokha spent most of last year hiding in the CNRP’s Phnom Penh headquarters to avoid arrest over a more trivial crime than treason. He eventually left after receiving a royal pardon and campaigned openly for the CNRP at this June’s commune elections.

Even before Kem Sokha’s arrest, commentators agreed that the government’s crackdown is motivated by fear it will lose next year’s general election to the CNRP.

Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won nationwide commune elections, but the CNRP cut deeply into its previous super-majority. The CPP won the 2013 general election, but with only 300,000 more votes than the opposition CNRP.

“This apparently is quite worrisome for the ruling party. They run against a walking dead party and still barely win,” Sophal Ear said, referring to the 2013 elections, adding: “Could it be that people actually want change?”

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) greets supporters of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) on the last day of the commune election campaign in Phnom Penh on June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Analysts are divided, however, whether the crackdown marks a return to Cambodia’s traditionally combustive politics or is indicative of a decisive move away from democratic politics.

The CPP unleashed a similar crackdown on critical voices ahead of the 2013 election. However, no independent newspapers were closed, nor were any international NGOs shuttered or expelled. Sam Rainsy, then the CNRP’s president who had lived in exile the previous three years, was even permitted to return weeks before the election.

“In many ways, this crackdown breaks with historical precedent. In the past, the government would walk back its crackdowns as a way of placating foreign critics and keeping the foreign aid flowing,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia.”

“Now, with strong Chinese backing, the government is announcing: ‘Enough is enough, we’re tired of this game of charades’.”

Other analysts wonder why the crackdown has been launched ten months before the next general election, rather than as in the past in the direct run-up to the polls.

Lee Morgenbesser, author of “Behind the Façade: Elections under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia”, says it makes more sense to suppress the opposition now rather than just before the election, “when citizens will be more politically active and there will be international focus on Cambodia.”

He speculated that the “costs of repression” will be much lower now than in 2018, which could mean the government is “more likely to get away with it.”

Supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) attend a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring 

Kem Sokha’s alleged treason charge, coming just weeks after US-funded organizations and news outlets were targeted, could prevent Washington from making a punitive response.

If Washington does opt to impose some sort of sanctions, Hun Sen’s government would no doubt point to them as proof that its claim of American interference was founded.

It’s also possible the CPP-led government doubts whether US President Donald Trump, with his professed admiration for strongman rule, holds strong convictions about upholding multi-party democracy in Cambodia.

The CPP’s claim that Kem Sokha had conspired with the US to overthrow the government was well-rehearsed, drawing on America’s history of past interventions in the country’s politics.

“The third hand,” Hun Sen said on Sunday, referring to the US’s documented support for a 1970 military coup, “used to use Lon Nol to conduct a coup, now the same problem happened.” Five years after the US-backed Lon Nol coup of 1970, the regime fell to the radical and murderous Khmer Rouge regime.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) and his wife Bun Rany in a 2014 file photo. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

The timing of Hun Sun’s crackdown could also relate to his personal affairs. Rumors about the premier’s supposed ill-health have been widely speculated about in recent months, as have claims that he is preparing to choose his self-anointed successor, most likely one of his three sons.

Some analysts had predicted that the father-to-son succession would take place after next year’s general election, based on the assumption that the CPP retained power. However, many now speculate that the handover could happen much sooner, while Hun Sen still has a firm grip on power.

The country’s politics were paralyzed for months in 2013 after the CNRP contested the official election result, a scenario the current clampdown underway apparently aims to preemptively avoid by weakening the opposition.

“Sweeping aside the opposition gives Hun Sen the space to tackle the sensitive challenge of planning a transition of power to a successor,” said Strangio, adding: “Cambodia is entering uncharted territory.”

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