Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during a ground breaking ceremony for the construction of a bridge across the Bassac river in Phnom Penh on October 26, 2020. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)

More than 100 people associated with a now-banned Cambodian opposition party and representatives of non-governmental organizations will stand trial in Phnom Penh this week, most in absentia, on charges ranging from treason and “incitement” to causing social chaos.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court will hear en masse these cases between November 25-26, which includes dozens of senior officials from the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), including acting-president Sam Rainsy, and grandees Eng Chhai Eang and Mu Sochua, who are all in exile.

Their charges of “plotting” and “incitement to commit a felony”, which are punishable by up to ten years in prison, stem from their alleged pledge to help the CNRP’s exiled acting-president Sam Rainsy in his failed bid to return to the country in November 2019.

One of the defense lawyers, Som Sokong, was quoted in the local Phnom Penh Post this week saying that even he was even unsure of how many defendants the court wants to prosecute. There are also concerns about the validity of hearing the cases en masse and in a court not open to the public.  

The opposition CNRP was forcibly dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017 on still-unproven charges of plotting a US-backed coup, just months after securing a massive rise in votes at local-level polls and ahead of a scheduled 2018 general election.

The party’s leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested months earlier on treason charges, while the expulsion of CNRP parliamentarians forced more than a hundred of its elected-officials and activists into exile, joining the party’s former president Sam Rainsy who went into self-exile in late 2015.

In power since 1979, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) went on to win all 125 parliamentary seats at the 2018 general election, when it may have lost the ballot had the CNRP been on the ticket.

President of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Kem Sokha arrives at a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017. Photo: Agencies

The pace at which these trials have been organized not only raises questions about their validity since defense lawyers claim they haven’t had enough time to prepare cases and most defendants are unable to attend, but also the political reason for their expediency with summonses only being issued late last month.

One reason may be to deal a lethal blow to activists, journalists and the now-banned opposition party before a change of government in the US to new President Joe Biden on January 20.

Earlier this month a group of US lawmakers called on outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to impose targeted sanctions on senior Cambodian officials and begin the process to remove the country’s trade privileges under the General System of Preferences (GSP) scheme.

That is unlikely to happen in the final few months of the Donald Trump administration, which may explain why Cambodian courts are rushing to prosecute so many defendants this week, as analysts reckon that Biden’s administration could be more forceful on human rights abuses and democracy issues.

Phnom Penh may also regard the European Union (EU), which has likewise penalized Cambodia’s democratic backsliding, as distracted. In February, Brussels decided to remove punitively a fifth of Cambodia’s trade privileges, resulting in the imposition of tariffs on vital Cambodian exports to Europe in August.

Phnom Penh had hoped that the authoritarian government of Hungary, an EU member, would serve as a defender of Cambodia within the bloc. But the official visit by Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto earlier this month turned into a public relations disaster after he tested positive for Covid-19 the following day in Bangkok.

Most of Cambodia’s most senior politicians, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, were forced into quarantine for the past few weeks. The incident also raised panic about an outbreak of the coronavirus in the capital, prompting the government to temporarily close schools for several weeks.

The Phnom Penh grapevine is alight with rumors of senior ministers not heeding Hun Sen’s instructions to isolate and obey safety measures, perhaps an indication of how little authority he has other cabinet ministers.

Whether coincidence or an intentional move by Phnom Penh, the mass court cases this week will take place as the 11th Cambodia-EU Joint Committee Meeting starts on November 26.

The Cambodian government has in recent months imposed three key pieces of legislation that could improve anti-money laundering operations (if enforcement is legitimate) following the EU’s designation of Cambodia on a watch-list category, which took effect last month. 

Cambodians hold a protest in front of the European Commission at the EU‘s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on September 18, 2017 to demand the release of opposition leader Kem Sokha. Photo: AFP Forum/Wiktor Dabkowski

This may somewhat placate Brussels’ concerns, but it is also demanding considerable reform to judicial processes in Cambodia, something that won’t be on show this week. The European Commission has threatened to rescind even more of Cambodia’s trade privileges without political reform, including the release of Kem Sokha and reinstatement of the CNRP.

But the real reason for this rush of court cases may instead come down to domestic politics.

The trial of Kem Sokha, the CNRP president arrested for treason, began only on January 15, almost two and a half years after his arrest, but was suspended in March ostensibly because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The courts say that it still cannot restart, despite the beginning of a trial of hundreds of other CNRP members this week. 

Justice Minister Koeut Rith was brought in by Hun Sen in a May reshuffle to fix the country’s backlog of court cases and improve the international image of the country’s court system. But Hun Sen more recently insinuated during a closed-door cabinet meeting in September that Kem Sokha’s trial might not take place until 2024, the year after the next general election is due.

It is clear to most Cambodia watchers that Hun Sen is trying to decimate the CNRP’s activist base before moving ahead with Kem Sokha’s case, which will most likely end with his conviction for treason and then a swift pardon from Hun Sen, depending on how malleable Kem Sokha proves to be.

Kem Sokha has been granted more freedom in recent months despite still technically being under house arrest. He has traveled to several provinces and met many foreign ambassadors while nominally still in detention.

This wouldn’t have been allowed unless the CPP government had a reason. One theory is that Hun Sen wants to appease Kem Sokha and persuade him to sever his ties to other CNRP leaders, so that in the future he may retake his position as head of a legal but enervated opposition party.

Opinions still differ over whether Hun Sen wants to consolidate his de facto one-party state or return to the more established norm of “competitive authoritarianism,” where opposition parties provide international credence to Cambodian democracy and allow Hun Sen to gauge the mood of the public.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) weaves as his wife Bun Rany (top R) looks on during an opening ceremony for the Khmer New Year at Bayon temple at the Angkor complex in Siem Reap province, April 13, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The CPP appropriated many of the CNRP campaign’s popular pledges after the opposition party nearly won the 2013 general election.

Since all of the current smaller parties lack the means to replace the CNRP as an electorally competitive opposition – despite the formation of a new coalition last week – Hun Sen might prefer to reform the CNRP as a weak force with Kem Sokha as a puppet leader.

For this to work, the party’s base and organizers would first need to be denuded so that a reinstated CNRP would be unable to mount any electoral battle against the CPP, the likely reason for the ongoing crackdown against hundreds of CNRP activists.

If so, it will mirror how Hun Sen defanged the once-rival royalist FUNCINPEC party, when it was the largest party at the 1993 election and then the main opposition group until the late 2000s.

As a corollary, the court’s decision to hear cases against exiled CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua this week but not the case of in-country Kem Sokha is most probably intended to sow further divisions within the already cleaved party.

The government no doubt hopes that some opposition party members will begin to question why Kem Sokha is receiving seemingly preferential treatment, especially when he is allowed to tour the country whilst the party’s exiled leaders have no way of knowing if they will ever be allowed back into Cambodia.

Some 12 CNRP senior officials and 27 CNRP activists currently in exile had their passports invalidated last year, something CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua raised with the Cambodian embassy in Washington this month. Hun Sen has no intention of allowing them to return, observers say, despite his frequent requests for them to do so.

Last year, Hun Sen threatened airlines with punishment if they flew the exiled leaders back into the country, and then successfully lobbied Cambodia’s neighbors, importantly Thailand, not to allow them access either. The exiled CNRP leaders have pledged to return as soon as these restrictions are lifted.

Sam Rainsy, for his part, has taken exception to journalists who have reported that he “fled” the country in late 2015, his third stint in exile since the 1990s.

Cambodian opposition politician Sam Rainsy addresses media in a file photo. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/ Kimlong Meng

Instead, he says that was advised not to return from a visit to South Korea on November 16, 2015 by the then-US ambassador in Phnom Penh William Heidt, who confidentially conveyed to him a message from Interior Minister Sar Kheng, a purported rival to Hun Sen within the CPP.

“Sar Kheng begged me not to come back that night because the situation would get ‘out of control’ and he needed some time to find a compromise within the CPP so as to ensure my smooth and safe return,” Sam Rainsy has claimed, referring to the National Assembly’s decision that day to strip him of parliamentary immunity.

“I have spoken in private with Sar Kheng. I know his feelings and understand his fear of Hun Sen,” Sam Rainsy told this journalist this week. According to the exiled opposition leader, Hun Sen’s desire to dissolve the CNRP might have been “a pre-emptive move” by Hun Sen to forestall any alliance between Sar Kheng and Sam Rainsy.

“Sar Kheng’s real but untold interest is to prevent Hun Sen from eliminating Sam Rainsy,” he claimed, referring to himself in the third person.

These claims cannot be independently confirmed. Heidt has not responded to Asia Times’ repeated requests for comment.

It may be Sam Rainsy’s attempt to sow divisions within the CPP leadership, just as Hun Sen tried to divide the CNRP’s top brass, or a means of blowing cold smoke over rumors that Hun Sen and Kem Sokha will soon come to an understanding. 

Though it may also reveal profound concerns within Hun Sen’s court about his own power and the threat posed by other CPP grandees, including Sar Kheng.

Hun Sen (R) with Interior Minister Sar Kheng (L). Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Rumors suggest the prime minister’s plan to hand power dynastically to one of his sons has met with stiff opposition from other CPP figures. Meanwhile, his friendship with Beijing risks a major backlash from the US, including sanctions on senior CPP officials and associated tycoons, who will feel the financial hit harder than Hun Sen.

Meanwhile, his government has to handle a contracting economy that will only see a marginal recovery next year, with still highly uncertain prospects for the crucial and now Covid-decimated tourism sector. 

In Sam Rainsy’s view, an alliance between the CNRP and a Sar Kheng-led CPP may be the solution to the problems associated with Hun Sen’s long authoritarian rule. In Hun Sen’s view, perhaps a legal but impotent CNRP is better than the current political void of his de facto one-party state.