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'Fear Is Something Constant,' Says Daughter Of Jailed Cambodian Opposition Leader

Oct 17, 2017
Originally published on October 17, 2017 1:43 pm

"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 Penh 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."

Interview Highlights

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.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

If you're a political strongman ruling your country with an iron fist for years, what is your greatest fear? Well, maybe fair elections. Cambodia's longtime prime minister, Hun Sen, is facing a vote next year. The country's opposition party made unprecedented gains in a recent local election. So Hun Sen is trying to shore up power. And to do that, his government arrested the main opposition leader, Kem Sokha. Kem's daughter, Monovithya Kem, told me about the night her father was hauled off to jail.

MONOVITHYA KEM: It was past midnight in Cambodia on September 2 turning September 3. And he actually called me and my sister. And we were abroad. And he said that there are about 100 to 200 armed police breaking into the house. I asked him to, you know, try to call some embassy, try to call the international community, some other diplomatic corps. And, of course, it's past midnight over there. Everyone has their phone off or not picking up because they're probably asleep.

The last word my father was telling me was that they're breaking in, they're breaking in. They're about to handcuff me now. And then they snatched the phone from him.

GREENE: Oh, my. Have you heard from him since then or been able to talk to him at all?

KEM: No, not at all. He's put in solitary confinement. He's in a room by himself with 24-hour surveillance camera. And only my mother is allowed to see him twice a week and his lawyers.

GREENE: What has he been accused of?

KEM: He's been accused of treason. The accusation is that he's conspiring with the U.S. to topple the Cambodian government. 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 somewhat free and fair manner in 2018, definitely the opposition, our party would take power.

And that's exactly why the Prime Minister Hun Sen is speeding up the crackdown.

GREENE: So Hun Sen is accusing your dad of collaborating with the United States. How much help has your father gotten from the U.S.? How much help has the party gotten?

KEM: The accusation is completely baseless. We have a relationship with countries just like any political parties do, just like the government does.

GREENE: Do you want and need help from the United States right now?

KEM: Right now we need more than just the United States. 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, fair election in 2018. When people don't have hope in the system or in free, fair election, they would likely take control over the system themselves. And that could lead to protests, that could lead to actually revolt.

GREENE: Do you see something at stake here that goes beyond your country?

KEM: The accusation that's involving the U.S. is done because the Cambodian government now has been receiving unprecedented support from China, which is why the U.S. has been a target of attack from the Cambodian government for over a year now. Perhaps the U.S.' lack of engagement in the region sends a signal to other places that it's OK for them to take over.

GREENE: For a country like China to move in?

KEM: Perhaps.

GREENE: Have you been able to meet with people, like, in the State Department and officials in the Trump administration to see what support they might be able to give you and your family?

KEM: Yes, I have met with officials at the State Department and Congress. And there's a few people in Congress that have been following Cambodia for a very, very long time and they know very well what's going on. They are trying their best to push the administration to take action. And from the administration side, they are weighing all the options right now to see what can be done.

GREENE: I just - on a personal level, you've worked alongside your dad opposing Hun Sen since you were very young. What was it like growing up as the daughter of someone who, you know, is confronting a dictator?

KEM: 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, we don't back down. And I think there isn't anything more rewarding than to be in the situation where we are now in Cambodia and to be given the opportunity to possibly make a big impact. And we have zero regrets.

GREENE: Well, we will hope that your father is safe and hope for the best for your family. Thank you so much.

KEM: Thank you for having me, David.

GREENE: Monovithya Kem is a member of her father's Cambodian National Rescue Party. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.