PHNOM PENH: At the peak of his political career, Kem Sokha is a trapped man.
Physically, he remains a self-sentenced prisoner inside the headquarters of his opposition party – the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). He has been for more than four months, only stepping outside for the first time since May last week to register to vote.
Perhaps more pertinently though, Sokha is stuck in a political game stacked against change. His struggle against the Cambodia’s long-engrained regime, led by the indomitable Prime Minister Hun Sen, is high risk.
And the chance of him reaping any real rewards is difficult to ascertain.
He is probably the country’s most popular politician – an advocate for fair politics in a climate where voices opposing the government are largely met with strength and hostility by those in power.
For now the opposition has been unable to ignite any kind of meaningful public movement. Yet it is mass demonstrations, the voice of the people, that Sokha so badly craves to endorse his tilt at leading the country.
“We don’t want to have any bleeding, any violence,” the CNRP’s vice-president told Channel NewsAsia. “Our priority is to address the problem peacefully. We have to do this first.
“However, if there are still such injustices, irregularities and other wrongdoings, I believe a bigger number of people will show up to protest.”
Authorities have muted all kinds of street demonstrations in recent times, while the party’s actual leader – Sam Rainsy – is in exile himself in France. Several other high-ranking officials and activists for the party have been arrested, harassed and are engulfed in legal battles or wallowing behind bars.
Meantime, the concrete locking in the government CPP’s grip on every aspect of the state apparatus seems to set even harder, if that is even possible after more than three decades of rule.
In this environment, Sokha clearly is positioning himself as a saviour – the man to end the reign of Hun Sen and deliver prosperity to the nation. His reading material, deliberately on display inside his small office-cum-bedroom, including titles about Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Napoleon and the Dalai Lama makes that ambition clear.
“Staying here is an act of a political protest,” he said. “It is political hideout to regain stability in politics in Cambodia, to stand against parliament immunity abuse, to oppose the constitution that is violated. And it is to show the international community that Cambodia’s democracy is under a grave threat.”
His language is suggestive of a man choosing to linger in the safety of his party shelter for now, but primed for a much brighter spotlight. But whether he shares that stage with Rainsy, a strategic associate rather than a vital comrade, remains a clouded issue.
“Although I’m losing my freedom, it actually encourages my supporters and it’s better than I escape or run away to hide out abroad,” Sokha said, in a less-than-subtle jab at Rainsy’s decision to remain overseas to dodge his own arrest should he return home.
“Throughout my stay here, I can see that people still stand strong with me. If I were to leave people will be discouraged, absolutely.
“If Mr Sam Rainsy came with me now it is, of course, better than I am here alone. Yet, if he already decided not come back, we can run the party without him. We still can move forward.”
The upcoming commune elections mid next year will be a litmus test of just where the CNRP stands ahead of the all-important national vote in 2018. The CNRP is warmly confident of winning a mandate from the Cambodian people but Sokha openly doubts that the polls will be held with legitimacy, including the lead-up to the vote.
The CNRP has on many occasions claimed that the government wishes to create instability that would allow a vote to be postponed. “Thus far, if there is no change with such atmosphere, a free and fair election won’t be happening,” he said.
Sokha’s role in all of this remains unclear. A five-month jail sentence still hangs over his head for failing to appear in court for questioning in a prostitution case against him.
The undertakings against Sokha are widely seen as politically motivated – he has parliamentary immunity – and the court system could viably be used as a weapon to prevent him having an impact on the election as a candidate. The threat of arrest looms, though a legal appeal has subdued the risk for now.
“I know that they cannot arrest me, legally, on the ground that it is not a final hearing yet. I still can appeal to higher courts,” he said.
“Secondly, I have so much confidence in Cambodians. They won’t let them arrest me. If there were an arrest on me, the people would definitely have a protest. And so, I have more trust in them than anything else.”
With this brave facade, he contends that Hun Sen is the one scared about the 2018 elections. But fear also shadows Sokha.
The CNRP has boycotted the national parliament for months – a strategy that has reaped few of its intentions. An expected end to that boycott last week failed to eventuate; CNRP lawmakers failed to show due to concerns about physical intimidation or violent retribution.
“That does not mean we give up on the parliament at all,” he said. “It is not the place for only the CPP, it’s our place as well. Yet, if it is not safe, doesn’t obey the law how can we go?
“If they were to offer us safety, we would definitely go back immediately.”
Democracy is still shaky in Cambodia; the opposition remains legislatively powerless and the political standoff between the two main parties appears irretrievably toxic. The conciliatory tone that the CNRP hoped to foster by refusing to fulfill its parliamentary duties – as futile as they may be – has not worked.
Sokha’s hope for a return to “normal” appears a pipedream.
As such, the opposition has been unable to advance a national conversation about important issues. Their strategy has evolved into trying to maintain a holding pattern and try and survive until the elections.
As for actual ideas to win over voters then, Sokha refutes the argument, from the government and external critics, that the party has no policy platform.
“It is just a manipulation, a baseless judgment. Every single thing, we have our own political principles,” he said. “If we didn’t have any clear principles, people would not support us ever since 2013, tremendously.”
He cited a number of focuses of a potential future CNRP government, including the struggling agriculture sector, better implementation of human rights, land rights protection and better economic development planning. They are all white-hot issues for Cambodians, many of whom live under or around the poverty line.
He also set out a guiding principle of non-confrontational politics, despite no assurances that, should the opposition take power, Hun Sen and his sprawling network would allow a smooth leadership transition. Indeed, the prime minister has instead warned of the outbreak of civil war.
“I would not take any revenge. We rather need a national reconciliation to save the nation. It would be a no-revenge politics.
“Then, Mr. Hun Sen would have an option, if we don’t take any revenge, he can continue living peacefully or he rather can confront his own people.”
IT’S A SMALL WORLD
Sokha is keeping himself busy. Each level of CNRP HQ is buzzing with supporters and party officials. The 63-year-old demands their attention during his regular speeches; he says he also holds regular meetings foreign diplomats and sessions with the party’s youth and women’s groups.
It is a small world though – literally.
Sokha’s makeshift sleeping area has little room to move in. It is temporarily but sparsely decorated. A shrine alongside two daggers purportedly from the era of Jayavarman VII – the Khmer empire’s venerated king – sits in one corner; an espresso machine sits in the other. Prayer helps him clear his mind, he admits.
A treadmill has been placed just outside his room. He uses it every day, he says, and to prove his vigour, Sokha briskly changes into a tracksuit and running shoes to work up a quick sweat.
But Sokha is used to it. And he is willing to stay for the long haul, if it reaps benefits for him, and the country.
He boasts about how much better organised the party is and the structures he has helped forge. That pillar of underlying grassroots support, however, has yet to be truly tested under this more mature, “united” stewardship.
The world will be watching Cambodia over the next two years. Whether the global community is willing to act or intervene may depend on just how Sokha chooses to direct his party, and accordingly how the government reacts.
A biochemist by trade in his university days, Sokha is happy to hypothesise. "Certainly, there will be a tremendous change," he said. “There will be a lot of change. A positive change.”
Follow Jack Board on Twitter: @JackBoardCNA