Cambodian leader meets rival who faces treason charges

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen met Tuesday with an opposition leader whose political party was dissolved after he was charged with treason.

They met when Kem Sokha, who led the Cambodia National Rescue Party, paid his respects at Hun Sen’s residence for the death of the prime minister’s mother-in-law.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said they did not discuss political issues or Kem Sokha’s court case.

“This is Cambodian culture, even if one is a rival or opponent, when one side has lost their loved one, the other side should come to pay respects,” he said.

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Photos published on Fresh News, an online news agency close to the government, showed Kem Sokha in a black business suit and Hun Sen in loose white clothing that is traditional mourning attire. The two men were pictured side by side and talking for what Fresh News said was 50 minutes.

Kem Sokha’s lawyer, Meng Sopheary, confirmed the meeting but declined to say what the men discussed.

Although the meeting was said to be non-political, the coverage by Fresh News, which showed both parties in a flattering light, is likely to fuel talk of some kind of reconciliation.

Hun Sen, who has been in power for 35 years, is an adroit political operator who has a history of allowing his once-bitter opponents to operate if they no longer pose a serious threat to him.

Kem Sokha was head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party when he was arrested in September 2017 on the basis of an old video showing him at a seminar where he spoke about receiving advice from U.S. pro-democracy groups. His party was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November 2017 on the same basis.

The actions were widely seen as a way to ensure a victory by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party in the 2018 general election. Hun Sen’s party won all the seats in the National Assembly in the polls, but drew condemnation from human rights groups and Western nations, which charged that the election was neither free nor fair.

Kem Sokha’s trial started in January, but was adjourned in mid-March due to the coronavirus outbreak. He could be imprisoned for up to 30 years if found guilty.

The courts late last year allowed Kem Sokha to be released on bail after a period of tightly restricted house arrest, but he is still banned from political activity.

Sam Rainsy, the co-founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, is in exile, avoiding criminal convictions he says are politically inspired. He was the de facto leader of the party while Kem Sokha was in prison before his release on bail. There is tension between supporters of the two opposition leaders because some feel Kem Sokha had to face severe pressure from Hun Sen’s government while Sam Rainsy was free in exile.

Sam Rainsy on his Facebook account posted a May 4 letter from Paris in which he also gave his condolences for the death of Hun Sen’s mother in-law. He recalled that Hun Sen had expressed his condolences in 2016 after the death of his own mother-in-law.

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