Cambodia’s opposition chief Kem Sokha on Thursday appeared to offer his support for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son Hun Manet as the ruling party’s candidate for his father’s role, in what a political analyst said is likely part of a bid to reenter politics despite his ongoing trial on charges of “treason.”

Speaking to reporters ahead of a hearing in his case at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the 68-year-old former head of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) said he “support[s] the idea of preparing successors because no one lives forever” and expressed hope that the next generation of politicians can resolve the stalemate left by their predecessors.

While Kem Sokha did not mention Hun Manet by name, his comments follow Hun Sen’s recent announcement that he had selected his son to run atop the ticket for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in Cambodia’s upcoming local elections, scheduled for June 5.

When asked about Kem Sokha’s apparent backing of Hun Manet, CPP spokesman Sok Ey San told RFA that political appointments are an internal party matter and that his message is being viewed as one of external support. He said the CPP’s new generation of leaders will continue to implement existing party policy.

“If [Kem Sokha] thinks the CPP’s prime minister candidate is capable, that is his opinion,” he said.

Political researcher Em Sovannara told RFA he believes that Kem Sokha’s comments were meant to show that “he is not Hun Sen’s enemy” in the hopes of convincing the government to allow him to reenter politics.

But he said that Kem Sokha’s comments are unlikely to be welcomed by CNRP supporters or acted on by the CPP without additional pressure from the U.S. and other Western nations, which have called for a resolution to Cambodia’s political stalemate.

“I think the CNRP’s supporters don’t support Kem Sokha’s stance on Hun Manet as the CPP’s candidate for prime minister,” he said. “But Kem Sokha is willing to ignore that if it means he will be given a chance to enter politics.”

Lengthy court case

Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 over an alleged plot backed by the United States to overthrow the government of Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years. Kem Sokha spent a year in jail before being released under court supervision.

After his arrest, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in a move that allowed the CPP to win all 125 seats in Parliament in a July 2018 election and drew U.S. sanctions and the suspension of trade privileges with the European Union.

When his trial resumed on Jan. 19 after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kem Sokha called for the treason charges against him to be dropped. He and his supporters say the charges are politically motivated.

On Wednesday, the former CNRP chief told reporters his fate in court would be decided by the political atmosphere of the nation, while continuing to defend his innocence.

He urged the court to drop the charges against him so that he can return to politics and take part in local elections.

“If [the political situation] is improved, the court will also make good decision,” he said. “I hope that the court will stand on the principle of justice.”

During his trial, Kem Sokha asked representatives of NGOs who were monitoring the hearing whether they want to see the CPP engage in political talks with the opposition, adding that the ruling party has yet to contact him.

Seong Senkaruna, spokesman for Cambodian rights group ADHOC, told RFA he responded that the country’s NGOs “want peaceful talks, as well to end the political crisis.”

When asked about Kem Sokha’s call for an end to the charges against him, government spokesman Phay Siphan said his case “is being dealt with by the court” and that Hun Sen could not intervene.

Hearings in Kem Sokha’s trial will resume on March 9.

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