“Fear is something constant,” says Monovithya Kem, the daughter of Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha. “I can say that although we have always faced a security and safety risk, you don’t get accustomed to fear.”
Her 65-year-old father was arrested in his home in Phnom Pen in early September and has been held since under 24-hour surveillance in a prison along the Vietnamese border. Kem Sokha has been charged with treason, accused of colluding with the United States to overthrow the Cambodian government, charges he denies. He has contact with his wife and lawyers twice a week. If convicted, he would face 30 years in prison.
The State Department condemned the arrest, saying it followed “a number of troubling recent steps, including the imposition of unprecedented restrictions on independent media and civil society.”
Kem Sokha, now leader of the Cambodian National Rescue Party, the main opposition to the ruling party, has been a thorn in the side of Prime Minister Hun Sen for decades. He has been in politics since the early 1990s, holding positions in the Cambodian parliament including minority leader.
His party won better than expected gains in local elections in June, and leaked surveys have shown that Cambodian voters prefer the opposition over Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party. National elections are scheduled for next year, but the ruling party recently asked the country’s supreme court to dissolve the National Rescue Party.
Since the summer, Hun Sen has lashed out at dissenters and cracked down on free speech in the country. In recent months, a prominent English-language newspaper and several radio stations have been shuttered. Foreign employees of the National Democratic Institute, an American nonprofit, were expelled and Hun Sen ramped up anti-U.S. rhetoric.
Monovithya, 36, is Kem Sokha’s eldest daughter and one of his party’s spokespeople. She tells NPR’s David Greene that she’s been working alongside her father in politics since she was very young. The whole family supports his work, she says. Her sister Samathida and their mother Te Chanmono have always stood behind Kem Sokha — never more so than now.
Despite her father’s treatment, “There isn’t anything more rewarding than to be in this situation where we are now in Cambodia and to be given the opportunity to possibly make a big impact,” Monovithya says. “We have zero regrets.”
On her father’s arrest
He actually called me and my sister and we were abroad, and he said that there were about 100 to 200 armed police breaking into the house. And I asked him to try to call some embassy, try to call the international community … and, of course, it’s past midnight over there. Everyone has their phone off or are not picking up because they’re probably asleep. And the last word my father was telling was, “They’re breaking in. They’re breaking in. They’re about to handcuff me now.” And then they snatched the phone from him.
On the accusations against her father
We are an opposition party. An opposition party’s goal is to be in power. In order for us to be in power, the other has to be out of power and we are doing that through free and fair elections… Dictators do not want free and fair election and they see free, fair election as a threat… I don’t believe that the current ruling party has ever accepted in their mind the multi-party system, multi-party democracy… And I think now that they have seen we have unprecedented support, if the election were to go forward in [a] somewhat free and fair manner in 2018, definitely the opposition – our party – will take power. And that’s exactly why Hun Sen is speeding up the crackdown.
On the 2018 elections
We need the international community, but in particular countries like the U.S., to take immediate action to reverse this crackdown in order to restore the integrity of a possible free and fair election in 2018. When people don’t have hope in the system or in free and fair election, they would likely take control over the system themselves and that could lead to protest. That could lead to, actually, revolt.
On China’s role in Cambodia
The Cambodian government has now been receiving unprecedented support from China, which is why the U.S. has been a target of attack … for over a year now. Perhaps the U.S. lack of engagement in the region sends a signal to other places that it’s okay for them [China] to take over.
On the effects on the family of her father’s work
Fear is something constant, and I can say that although we have always faced a security and safety risk, you don’t get accustomed to fear. But despite this fear, you don’t back down … For example, when [Kem Sokhan] was about to launch the opposition party in 2007, he discussed [it] very thoroughly with my mother, with my sister and myself, for us to understand that it would add extra risk to not only himself but to the family. And the answer from all of us was we were pushing him to do it … and there isn’t anything more rewarding than to be in this situation where we are now in Cambodia and to be given the opportunity to possibly make a big impact, and we have zero regrets.