Kem Monovithya, a Cambodian political activist, was visiting Switzerland in September when she got a phone call from her father. Kem Sokha, the leader of Cambodia’s main opposition party, told his daughter that government agents were raiding their family’s home in Phnom Penh.
“He told me: ‘They’re handcuffing me now,'” Kem Monovithya, 36, recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.
Months later, her father remains in prison facing charges of treason, and she is in the United States.
She said she can’t go home because she fears she, too, will be arrested as part of a government crackdown that has banned the political party her father led, shut down news outlets and scattered hundreds of Cambodian politicians, human rights activists and journalists into exile in the U.S., Australia, Thailand and other countries.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party, has stepped up actions against media organizations and opposition politicians over the past two years as national elections — which are set for Sunday — have drawn closer.
Hun Sen, who had held power for three decades, vowed last year that he’d be willing to “eliminate 100 to 200 people” to protect the nation’s security, suggesting his opponents “prepare coffins.”
Spokespeople for the ruling party and the government did not answer questions from the AP for this story.
In February, the government issued a 132-page book that asserted that “real democracy is not being reversed … On the contrary, only fake democracy is being uprooted.”
The international watchdog group Human Rights Watch says the “civil and political rights environment in Cambodia” has “markedly deteriorated” since the start of 2017. The group says the regime has engaged in “arbitrary arrests and other abuses” and worked to portray peaceful dissent over corruption, land rights and other issues as attempts to overthrow the government.
Kem Monovithya and other exiled members of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party are keeping the party alive from abroad. They are trying to convince the U.S., the European Union and others to place an embargo on international travel by top Cambodian officials.
They are also asking voters to boycott this month’s elections, using social media to urge Cambodians to embrace a “clean finger campaign.” In Cambodia, voters must dip their fingers in ink after casting their ballots.
The National Election Committee warned that anyone urging a boycott or otherwise interfering in the polls could face criminal charges.
The troubles are the latest in a country that has endured genocide, civil war and oppression over the past half century. Nearly 2 million Cambodians died in the “killing fields” operated by the Khmer Rouge, the communist regime that controlled the country from 1975 to 1979. Hun Sen took power as Cambodia’s prime minister in 1985.
Kem Monovithya and other exiles have traveled around the U.S. and to Europe, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere to spread their message, talking with diplomats, lawmakers, media and Cambodians living abroad.
Kem Monovithya told the AP that her exile is “a test of my strength and endurance. I am almost homeless.” She stays with friends and she isn’t sure where she’ll be from week to week. “I go where my advocacy takes me,” she said.
The U.S. has expressed “grave concern” about the Cambodian government’s actions and questioned whether this month’s elections will be free and fair. In March, the Trump White House said it was withholding $8.3 million in funding for Cambodia’s government as part of an effort “to ensure that American taxpayer funds are not being used to support anti-democratic behavior.”
Cambodian authorities claim that opposition leaders, community activists and journalists are working with the U.S. and other “superpowers” to bring down the government. Hun Sen and other government officials use the term “color revolution” to describe these efforts.
“All armed forces are obliged to absolutely ensure that Cambodia is free from any color revolutions,” Hun Sen wrote in a Facebook post in 2016. “Such a revolution will harm people’s happiness and peace in Cambodia. Armed forces shall protect the legitimate government.”
The government has closed down about 20 radio channels and arrested two former reporters with U.S.-backed Radio Free Asia and held them on charges that they had provided a “foreign state with information which undermines national defense.”
Kem Monovithya said her father, Kem Sokha, hasn’t been allowed visitors since his arrest last September. She said doesn’t know when she’ll be able to see him or return to Cambodia. But she said she will find a way.
“I have to go back home, and I will not give up the fight,” she said. “It’s our country. We cannot allow a small group of people to kick us out of the country forever.”