Clockwise from left: Kung Raiya, Hong Sok Hour, Um Sam An, Meach Sovannara, Yi Soksan and Ny Sokha
When he entered prison, Kung Raiya was just “a young bull”—a 26-year-old political science student, hot-headed and put in jail for posting on Facebook that he would someday start a “color revolution.”
But inside the walls of Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, he found a teacher. In fact, he says he found a whole group of mentors: rights workers and politicians imprisoned over the past couple of years amid an apparent crackdown on dissenting voices in Cambodia.
In an interview on the day after his release last month, Mr. Raiya recalled what he said ultimately became an empowering experience.
At first, he said, prison guards kept a vigilant watch over him. They banned him from speaking to the high-profile prisoners who were also detained in Prey Sar.
Among them was former CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An and former CNRP Senator Hong Sok Hour, both tried and convicted on charges of incitement over separate Facebook posts last year. There were also officials from rights group Adhoc, including head of monitoring Ny Sokha, and deputies Nay Vanda and Yi Soksan. They had been jailed last May amid a prostitution investigation into then-CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha.
Inside Prey Sar was a wealth of experience and knowledge that could be invaluable to expand his nascent activism, Mr. Raiya said.
But for the first seven months of his 18-month sentence—handed down for incitement over his Facebook post—he was not allowed to venture out to meet his future mentors. He was consigned to a circle of hardcore criminals, he said, with few people to whom he could really talk.
One day, however, he said he figured out that everything had its price.
The freedom to talk with whomever he wanted cost between 3,000 and 5,000 riel, or about $0.75 and $1.25, a conversation.
“I needed to bribe the guards…each time [so] that they can let me come out to talk,” he said.
That realization opened up a new world.
Mr. Raiya said he began to regularly meet with the CNRP and Adhoc officials, learning patience and judgment and hardening his resolve to speak out about issues plaguing his country, such as government corruption, illegal logging and land grabbing.
“They shared many experiences and advice with me, like how to do politics, and encouraged me to continue my will—to dare—and don’t retreat in demanding freedom” for society, Mr. Raiya said.
Mr. Raiya said that Mr. Sok Hour, the former senator, was especially well-respected among inmates, as he was the most “senior” political prisoner.
“Before, I was very temperamental, like a young bull, but now I have received much experience.”
“The person that I can’t forget is Hong Sok Hour. He is the senior prisoner that I consider as the teacher…. [He] shared his experiences and gave me many opinions,” he said. “He taught me not to quickly trust people, and to judge what is happening in society.”
Mr. Sok Hour and Mr. Sam An, as well as former CNRP media head Meach Sovannara, a U.S. citizen, all resigned from their posts in the CNRP last month to avoid complications over amendments to the Law on Political Parties that give the courts the power to dissolve parties in which the leadership has criminal records.
Critics have described the changes—which Senate President Say Chhum, as acting head of state, signed on Tuesday—as the “final blow” to democracy in Cambodia.
The Adhoc officials, meanwhile, were jailed over an alleged affair between Mr. Sokha and a 25-year-old manicurist, whom authorities claimed the officials bribed to deny the affair. The case is widely perceived to be part of the government’s crackdown on political opponents coming up to the June commune elections and national elections next year.
“The rights group officials, they taught me to be patient, about advocacy and to understand about the rights,” he said.
On the day he left prison, Mr. Raiya had told reporters: “Before, I was very temperamental, like a young bull, but now I have received much experience.”
Sorn Keo, deputy director of the government’s general department of prison’s correctional department, rejected Mr. Raiya’s claim that guards at the facility accepted bribes in exchange for meeting other prisoners.
“We do not have the policy of taking bribes in order to meet someone,” he said.

“Normally, our officials respect their morality and disciplinary. If we find them involved with irregularities, we will punish them according to our rules.”