Democracy in Cambodia is shrinking, and the country is returning to the dark era of the Khmer Rouge, the deputy president of the main opposition party told the Nikkei Asian Review immediately after fleeing the nation in fear of being jailed.
Following the arrest of Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha on treason charges in September, Prime Minister Hun Sen has suggested that at least 20 more opposition lawmakers could be arrested in connection with the "rebellion."
Speaking in Southeast Asia on condition that her location is not identified, Mu Sochua told the Nikkei Asian Review that "the democracy space is shrinking" in Cambodia, and called on the international community to impose sanctions such as suspending visa issuance and development aid.
Mu Sochua criticized Hun Sen for closing independent media outlets and for "manipulation" of electoral processes, warning that the situation could lead to a revival of the Khmer Rouge regime, remembered for the scale of its repression and massacres. Hun Sen was a former Khmer Rouge soldier.
Extracts from the interview follow.
Q: The current Cambodia government seems to be paying less attention to the international community because of its strong backing from China, which is by far the largest investor in the country. What can be done to attract more attention from the international community?
A: I think the international community should not be paralyzed by China. Countries such as Japan should work with other countries that are concerned by the situation of human rights, by the danger of having a strong donor with no conditions on human rights. It is important to bring the voice as one voice if you can sanction.
Hun Sen is a strong manipulator. He is a very clever manipulator. He pushes the China card on the region and on the specific country -- if you don't want me, I will go to China. That is his tactic.
To destabilize Hun Sen's power, countries will have to work together. That will also say to China that Japan is not alone bringing up this voice.
Working with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is an option. There are ASEAN countries that are dissatisfied with China for being so aggressive in the region.
Q: The political party law was amended in February, requiring parties whose leader is found guilty of a crime to dissolve. If Kem Sokha is found guilty and the CNRP is dissolved, the 2018 election is expected to be just a formality to extend Hun Sen's three-decade rule in the country. Is there anything you can do to change the law?
A: We alone cannot, but with the international community, we can.
The whole scenario of the government is to dissolve the CNRP. They amended the political party law to make it easy to expel our former leader Sam Rainsy.
The democracy space is shrinking to a point where you are at a very tight rope. You stretch that rope, harder and harder.
I think the international community is very well aware. But because the situation is getting worse, we ask for more than just resolutions or statements.
We ask for very clear actions, which is targeted sanctions such as visa sanctions. We ask for suspension of technical assistance.
For example, Japan seems very generous on road constructions, local transport and development in urban sectors.
But infrastructure can wait, at this moment when democracy is at crisis.
You cannot ask a government to behave when, at the same time, you still give them carrots. I think for the next 10 months, suspension of aid for infrastructure must be imposed, and [the international community must] make it very clear that democracy comes first. If there is no democracy the good roads built by Japan is not going to help the people of Cambodia.
Q: Hun Sen has said publicly that he wants to stay in power for another 10 years. Do you think that his crackdown will escalate further?
A: He is going against the will of the Cambodia people. There were 3 million voters that voted for change. The difference between the opposition and leading parties in the communal elections in June was 4 percentage points. It was the first time we went that close. It shows how legitimate we are.
If Hun Sen can stay in power for 30 years and stay on for 10 more years, international aid is part of the problem, because it is reinforcing his power. Therefore we are very clear of the role and obligation of donors to the Paris Peace Accords.
As part of manipulating [the] election, there is a strong drive by the leading party CPP (Cambodian People's Party), initiated by the central government but conducted on the village level, which is going door to door and forcing people to sign up for CPP. They are giving money and even threatening them. People are afraid.
The international community should know that these tactics used by CPP reminds us of the Khmer Rouge years. They use the village chiefs, the intimidation of the local level, the plain clothes police, the court and all that.
But now, Cambodia has a very strong opposition. Our performance has been judged by the people. We just need the international community to fulfill obligations. And time is running out. We have from now until July 2018. Many things will go back to the Khmer Rouge if the opposition is dead.
Q: Nearly half of opposition party members are now out of Cambodia. The former party leader Sam Rainsy is also abroad. What forced you to follow suit?
A: I have always represented the voice of the opposition inside the country. After Kem Sokha was arrested I could have left right away, but I didn't want to because we wanted a voice inside, a voice that could travel around the countryside and that was exactly what we were doing last weekend.
We went to let the people know what the next step is for the opposition. We needed to push for registration of voters because with only about 35 days left for registration, only 30% of the voters have registered. We are very worried that the people are thinking "why should we register to vote when the CNRP is not going to participate with its leader in jail?"
Also, we went to counter the propaganda of the government saying that Kem Sokha is a traitor. We have no media that can monitor, after the closure of outlets such as Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America.
On Monday, Hun Sen made a speech and was very angry. He said that Kem Sokha is not the only one to be investigated and there will be more. Put two and two together and you know what is going to happen.
On Monday night, I received a message from a senior government official who sent me the speech of Hun Sen. I thought this is a clue -- either to threaten me or to tell me that I am in danger.
I had received from another source a message saying that I will be arrested within this week. So I asked the senior official: "Is the speech about me?" He said yes. I asked: "Will I be arrested this week?" He said yes.
I left my house to go somewhere else safer. The next day I packed everything and left the country.
I was willing to stay and go to jail. But without Sam Rainsy who can no longer speak on our behalf, Kem Sokha in jail and then I go to jail, who is going to speak for the opposition?
I decided against my own will, it breaks my heart to flee. But this is the reality. When I will go back? I don't know. I will go back only when Kem Sokha is released so we can prepare for elections.
(Nikkei Asian Review)