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Small act of protest led to big problems

Sam Rithy, 35, Sokha’s ex-husband, photographed with their children at his residence in Kampong Speu province.
Sam Rithy, 35, Sokha’s ex-husband, photographed with their children at his residence in Kampong Speu province. Shaun Turton

Small act of protest led to big problems

In an act of political protest on April 2, Sam Sokha threw her sandal twice at a roadside ruling party billboard in Preah Sihanouk province, a gesture which was filmed and uploaded to social media.

The first throw bounced off a picture of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s face, the second off the image of National Assembly President Heng Samrin.

Less than a week after the shoe dropped, the provincial court in her native Kampong Speu summonsed her for questioning on accusations of “insulting” behaviour and “incitement to discriminate”.

The 38-year-old is now in hiding abroad, separated from her children, and says she’s received threats by CPP supporters.

“Before I threw the shoe, I never thought it would become so serious,” Sokha said by phone yesterday. “I never thought it would lead to this.”

The act of throwing a shoe has turned the lives of Sokha’s family upside down, while the CPP’s heavy-handed response, analysts say, has not only betrayed the party’s deepening fears, but is also likely to have the unintended consequence of compounding discontent.

Sokha’s mother, Tep Sareth, has not been able to see her daughter since the family returned from the seaside.

“I have lost my daughter. If I knew where she is, I wouldn’t feel like this,” she said, through tears.

Sitting at his computer and phone repair shop next to Kampong Speu provincial market this week, Sokha’s former spouse, Sam Rithy, also broke down when asked about how the pair’s 6-year-old daughter and 12 year-old son were coping. “Nothing happened to the billboard at all,” he said. “It was not so serious that she should face this.”

Rithy, who met Sokha in 2002 after slipping her a free ticket when he spotted her at the bumper car ride he worked at in Battambang, said his ex-wife had always been outspoken.

It was at garment factory protests, however, that she became more politically active, he said, culminating in her firing last year when her employers accused her of organising a rally, a complaint which reached court and resurfaced in recent weeks.

Like millions of Cambodians, Rithy said, Sokha, a Free Trade Union member, found her voice on Facebook, which provided an outlet for her critical views of society.

“I opened her an account but closed it again because I thought she would get in trouble,” he said, saying his fear that Sokha’s activism would bring consequences for the family was a factor in their divorce last year. “But she replied that she would rather die than stop talking about politics.”

Social analyst Meas Ny said that, as with Sokha’s case, Facebook was making criticism more visible to the ruling party just at a time the party was becoming more anxious about its support as elections approached.

“They know people are not satisfied with that they are doing,” Ny said.

“This creates great anxiety and that’s why we see a lot of negative reactions from the government.”

But political analyst Cham Bunteth said that by dealing with criticism as threats, rather than analysing the reasons behind, the CPP was only making the problem worse.

“That’s what makes the ruling party lose a lot of support,” Bunteth said. “The way they react to those who do not like them, in a way that they are not trying to fix the problems and please those people, makes the case even worse and other people who see that get mad too.”

Reached yesterday, Kampong Speu Prosecutor Koe Sothear said the court was “working on the case”, but hung up before explaining how exactly throwing a shoe at a sign constituted incitement.

Kampong Speu Governor Vei Samnang said it was “up to the court” to take action, though in April said authorities had taken action to protect the “leader’s dignity”.

Sokha, who declined to reveal her location, said the system was rigged with double standards.

“I threw the shoe because CPP supporters had torn down a CNRP banner and broken the stand but nothing happened,” Sokha said.

“I just want to say that we cannot touch on CPP, but CPP can do what they like to us.”

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