Spotlight - Cambodia: March 9, 2023

On March 3, the Phnom Penh municipal court ended opposition leader Kem Sokha’s three-year trial by convicting him of treason—and sentencing him to 27 years in prison. Kem, who is 69 years old, will now likely spend the rest of his life in prison or under house arrest.

Long-time Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen had accused Kem of working with foreign entities to foment a “color revolution” to topple the government. The government’s “evidence” of that supposed collusion is that Kem took ideas from other countries, per the municipal court judge, and that his now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party accepted training from the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (Canvas), a Serbia-based non-profit.

The charges are not based in reality. But Cambodia’s judiciary is not independent. Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) control the system; they are the reason why the charges were brought against Kem, and why he was convicted and given such a harsh sentence.

The goal of this severe treatment—to further silence Cambodia’s already beaten-down opposition ahead of this summer’s elections—is obvious. But this focus on centralizing power at home is at odds with Hun Sen’s attempts to improve his country’s relationship with the West, namely the United States, to at least somewhat reduce his reliance on China. Hun Sen can hire all the D.C. lobbyists he wants, but continued crackdowns on politicians like Kem and on the independent media will make it nearly impossible for his government to meaningfully improve ties with Washington or Brussels.

On the day of Kem’s sentencing, the State Department released a statement calling the conviction “unjust” and saying that it “profoundly diminishes the Kingdom of Cambodia’s standing in the international community.” Those are not the comments of a potential partner of Hun Sen.

Kem Sokha’s conviction, then, is a reminder of how Hun Sen’s two goals—his focus on retaining power and his hopes for a possible foreign policy rebalance—are contradictory, and that the first one will always win out. But as long as Hun Sen is ruthless in clamping down on the opposition, any calls for rapprochement with the West will keep falling on deaf ears. And the people of Cambodia will be worse off.

Charles Dunst is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Charles Dunst
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program