Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Hun Sen tries to play down U.S. link to Kem Sokha’s case

Prime Minister Hun Sen meet with his supporters in Washington ahead of the ASEAN-U.S meeting. Picture from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s facebook page
Prime Minister Hun Sen meet with his supporters in Washington ahead of the ASEAN-U.S meeting. Picture from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s facebook page

Prime Minister Hun Sen said Cambodian authorities have never accused the U.S government of involvement with former opposition leader Kem Sokha, who stands accused of conspiring with foreign actors to incite a so-called color revolution.

Hun Sen, as the ASEAN​ chairman, led a Cambodian delegation to join the ASEAN-US Summit in Washington from May 12 -13.

During a meeting with his supporters in Washington on May 11, Hun Sen insisted that neither the Cambodian government, nor he, has ever accused the U.S government of being linked to Sokha’s case.

“Neither the court nor the government accused the United States …this is not about Cambodia and the United States, it is about Kem Sokha,” he said. “We are not accusing the United States of helping Kem Sokha to overthrow the government.”

Sokha, former leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, is currently on trial for charges dating back to September 2017. He was arrested and charged with conspiring with a foreign power for allegedly working with the US to attempt to overthrow the government.

The CNRP was dissolved by Supreme Court order in 2017, allegedly for serving as a vehicle for that same attempted revolution. As part of the decision, more than 100 CNRP members were barred from political engagement for five years.

Former opposition leader Kem Sokha arrives at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to attend his hearing, Picture taken April 20, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Pheng Heng, Kem Sokha’s co-defense lawyer, said that lawyers for the government have mentioned the name of at least eight countries during the hearings, including the US.

“If the government said the United States is not involved in the case or has not helped Kem Sokha in any attempt to overthrow the government, the government should drop all charges against him,” he said.

Political analyst Em Sovanara said Hun Sen’s statement could be read as a message asking Cambodian Americans in the US not to blame him.

“Hun Sen’s remarks could also be a message that the Cambodian government has not accused the United States,” he said.  “But that has already been carried out.”

“I do not think the claim reflects the facts because if the court does not accuse the United States of being linked to the case, what evidence is there to inculpate [Kem Sokha of conspiring with a foreign power]?” he added.

A day before the ASEAN-US summit, Hun Sen met his overseas supporters and spoke about everything ranging from economic development to politics under his long decades of control.

He was welcomed by hundreds of CPP supporters. But in a video posted on social media, a man was seen throwing his shoe at Hun Sen as he took selfies with supporters.

Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks with former CNRP president Kem Sokha during the funeral of the premier’s brother, Hun Neng. Photo taken on May 8, 2022. Kem Sokha’s facebook page

During the meeting, Hun Sen also called on overseas supporters to stand up against the opposition. He said CPP supporters abroad were under threat from opposition groups and called on the United States to protect their rights.

“It’s time to stand up to fight for freedom in America and show clearly that [we are] the supporters of the CPP and support the government,” he said. “Don’t be afraid and quiet. Why do the people who come to live in the country of democracy have to face such threats?”

Hun Sen also spoke about the death of his brother, Hun Neng, who passed away last week at the age of 72. Sokha attended the funeral, during which he and the premier reportedly spoke for four hours.

Hun Sen said opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has been living in exile, should have  shared his condolences.

“This should have been an opportunity for politicians,” he said.

Sophal Ear, a Cambodian political commentator and associate professor at Occidental College in California, said talk at a funeral should not be taken as political exchange.

“We all saw Kem Sokha spend four hours with Hun Sen during the funeral. They were both eating, and the pictures were unflattering,” he said “It seems these were action shots. Anyhow, it should not take a funeral to have a discussion.”

Sophal said Hun Sen’s urging of overseas CPP supporters to stand up against the opposition is nothing new.

“He is always calling on his supporters overseas to attack opposition groups,” he said. “Clearly, he has very little respect for democracy at home, so it would follow that he has very little respect for democracy abroad.”