September 3, 2017 11:54 pm JST

Hun Sen's government resorts to strongarm tactics against media, critics

Cambodia Daily forced out of business, opposition leader arrested for treason

KEN KOYANAGI, Editor-at-large, Nikkei Asian Review

Cambodia's Prime Minister and president of Cambodian People's Party (CPP) Hun Sen speaks during a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on June 2. © Reuters

BANGKOK -- The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen is ratcheting up pressure on political opponents, critics, the media, and non-governmental organizations ahead of national elections next year.

On Sunday, Sept. 3, Kem Sokha, president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and a member of parliament, was arrested for alleged treason.

The Cambodia Daily, one of the country's few independent daily newspapers, announced the same day its closure after 25 years in the vanguard of the nation's free press. The newspaper said it was being forced out of business by a massive bill for back tax.

"As a result of extra-legal threats by the government to close the Daily, freeze its accounts and prosecute the new owner for the actions of the previous owner, The Bernard Krisher Jimusho Co. is unable to operate The Cambodia Daily newspaper and it will cease publication as of September 4, 2017," the newspaper said in a statement.

Kem Sokha was arrested at his house in a police swoop at 00:35 AM on Sept. 3. Kem Monovitthya, one of the politician's daughters, said on Facebook that her father had been handcuffed and taken away after hundreds of policemen raided his home.

Khieu Sopheak, an interior ministry spokesmen told reporters that Sokha's "on-the-spot arrest" was for treason, and that members of parliament had no immunity in such situations.

According to a subsequent government statement, Sokha's "treason" can be seen in a video clip published online by Cambodian Broadcasting Network (CBN), which is based in Australia.

The government said this showed clearly that Kem Sokha and his group had a secret conspiracy with foreigners to harm Cambodia. Kem Sokha allegedly spoke on CBN about how the U.S. is supporting him to overthrow the government. He could face up to 30 years in prison if found guilty of conspiring with a foreign power, according to article 443 of Cambodia's criminal code.

Kem Sokha, 64, has led the main opposition CNRP since his predecessor, Sam Rainsy, resigned in February after party law amendments outlawed political parties led by people with criminal convictions. The CNRP could therefore be dissolved if Sokha is found guilty. Sam Rainsy remains abroad in self-imposed exile.

"CNRP shall be dissolved if it keeps defending Kem Sokha and keeps saying that this country is a dictatorship," Hun Sen warned during a meeting with 4,000 workers on Sunday. Hun Sen also warned the U.S. and other foreign countries not to interfere in Cambodian politics.

CNRP gained strength as the opposition party to the ruling Cambodian People's Party in national elections in July 2013 and in municipal elections in June this year. Hun Sen has attacked his political foes with amendments to election and party laws, judicial maneuvers, arbitrary law enforcement, and hefty tax bills. The next national election is set for July 2018.

The arrest of Kem Sokha comes after the government cracked down on NGOs and critical media. In August, at least 15 radio stations broadcasting content from Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, Voice of Democracy, and other foreign networks were shut down by the government for "violation of contracts" with the information ministry.

The country's tax department announced in early August that the Cambodia Daily, an independent English-language newspaper, owes some $6 million in unpaid tax from 2007 to 2016, and ordered the publisher to pay in full by Sept. 4.

The newspaper cried foul in its closure statement on Sept. 3: "In an ordinary process, matters in dispute would be resolved after an audit and private negotiations. Instead, the Daily has been targeted for an astronomical tax assessment, leaks and false statements by the tax department and public vilification by the head of government before an audit, much less a legal proceeding."

After "24 years and 15 days of journalistic activities" the newspaper said it will publish its last print edition on Sept. 4, but will keep its website with all past articles online from a server located in a foreign country for the foreseeable future.

On August 23, the government closed the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a U.S.-funded NGO, and ordered its expatriate staff out of the country.

Hun Sen, 65, was first installed as Cambodia's prime minister in 1985 during the Vietnamese occupation of the country. He had defected from the Khmer Rouge across the border to Vietnam in the late 1970s. In recent years, he has become one of China's closest regional allies, and made increasingly strident verbal attacks on the European Union, the United Nations, and the U.S., as well as any international organizations that criticized him for violations of human or political rights.

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