International desk, October 06: Mu Sochua, one of Cambodia’s best-known politicians and deputy leader of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), has fled into exile after being warned she was about to be arrested on charges of treason. She spoke to BBC South-East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head in Bangkok – the exact location is being concealed for her safety.
“To flee the country has never been part of my agenda,” says Mu Sochua, sitting in a bare room in Bangkok where she is in transit to another, as yet undisclosed, destination.
“It is a choice I thought I would never have to make. It is a very painful choice.”
Earlier this week she was warned, she says, by sources close to the government that she would be arrested by the weekend.
Last month her party leader, veteran human rights campaigner Kem Sokha, was taken from his home by 200 police officers and charged with treason. Last week Prime Minister Hun Sen said others would be arrested on the same charge.
“I no longer felt safe. What I was afraid of being captured and being silenced, put in jail, and having my case go through our kangaroo courts for months and months,” said Mu Sochua.
Harassment of opposition figures is nothing new in Cambodia. Ever since the country was guided out of the years of war and revolution in the early 1990s by a massive international operation and given a new democracy, human rights groups have catalogued repeated attacks on political and human rights activists. Some were tried in Cambodia’s notoriously corrupt courts, some were physically assaulted.
The finger of suspicion has nearly always pointed in the direction of Hun Sen – the blunt-speaking strongman who has ruled the country since 1985 – or his cronies. No-one has ever been properly held to account for a series of political killings, the latest Kem Ley, an outspoken critic of the Prime Minister who was shot dead in July last year.
Yet a rough but functioning democratic system with a reasonably free media has survived for the past 25 years with local and national elections every five years.
In the last general election in 2013 the CNRP, then a new movement combining two older opposition parties, came very close to unseating Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
The opposition accused the government of cheating and started a series of street rallies in the capital Phnom Penh which, after four months, were harshly put down by security forces.