Cambodian Opposition Reshuffles Leadership under Pressure from Hun Sen

By Nicole Smolinske —

Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia (right) at a press conference with opposition leader Sam Rainsy (left) during 2015. Source: VOA, U.S. Government Work.

Inciting divisions between opponents to undermine their credibility and political clout is not an unfamiliar tactic to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. The culmination of months of divisive tactics has most recently borne fruit as Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader, Sam Rainsy, stepped down on February 11.

Hun Sen has long proven his skill for dividing and dismantling political opposition, often with the successful use of his strongman personality and a calculated pattern of undermining the political and moral authority of his opposition. The last few months have been no exception.

Once political rivals, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha united their respective parties to form the CNRP in 2012. While a cursory glance at the CNRP suggested a party united in its quest of victory over the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), Rainsy and Sokha have not always seen eye to eye and have struggled to share the political limelight. The occasional public spat was sometimes displayed via Twitter and often involved Kem Monovithya, Sokha’s daughter and party deputy director-general of public affairs.

Rainsy and Sokha are no strangers to Hun Sen’s toolbox of divisive tactics, yet whispers of infighting and tension within the CNRP had been growing louder for months with a variety of signs pointing towards Sokha pushing Rainsy from a position of power. Since the summer of 2016, Rainsy and Sokha have addressed Hun Sen’s divisive tactics head-on with public declarations of party unity ahead of the upcoming elections. They chided Hun Sen for his history of divisiveness and described his predictable approach to encourage a split in the CNRP, assuring the Cambodian people that such tactics would not work.

Hun Sen and the CPP have long utilized the courtroom and the court of public opinion to discredit and shame political opposition through soap-opera worthy scandals involving mistresses, tapped-phone conversations, and an ongoing barrage of trumped up charges and lawsuits. Such cases have been widely publicized and CPP and government officials have repeatedly attacked members of the CNRP on moral and legal grounds. Rainsy has described the legal proceedings as a “kangaroo court” on more than one occasion.

Hun Sen, who was instrumental in the initial indictment of Sokha on prostitution charges and was subsequently charged for failure to adhere to a court summons, requested a royal pardon for him from King Norodom Sihamoni on December 2, 2016. Previously, Sokha had been relegated to the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh for months to avoid arrest. Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the pardon was a political compromise and it showed the prime minister’s “virtue and softness.”

Once Sokha was pardoned, political dialogue with Hun Sen was reinstated as Sokha was named acting president of the CNRP while Sam Rainsy remained exiled in France. However, the CPP dissolved this relationship after it lost leverage over the CNRP due to a leaked letter highlighting Hun Sen’s strategy of manipulating Kem Sokha’s compliance by allegedly bargaining the release of the ‘Adhoc 5’. The Adhoc 5 is comprised of four current and one former employee of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC). The Adhoc 5 were charged in May 2016 for “bribery of a witness” linked to Sokha’s prostitution case and supporters had expressed outrage at the group’s prolonged pre-trial detention and denial of bail requests. The leaked letter (likely drafted by Hun Sen’s staff for Sokha to sign) said the CNRP could expel any member of its party if he or she insulted the prime minister’s family, a direct barb towards Rainsy, who had previously insulted Hun Sen’s son online.

After the draft letter was made public, the CNRP began a boycott of the National Assembly and essentially lost its place in the assembly. Rainsy then proceeded to file a suit with the International Criminal Court over Hun Sen’s involvement in a failed plan to militarize the Cambodian-Vietnamese border during his time with the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, drawing on historical tensions with Vietnam and the bloody Khmer Rouge era.

As tensions between the CNRP and CPP continued to increase, the final piece of Rainsy’s downfall fell into place when new legislation was introduced and fast-tracked in the National Assembly which would give the court and government power to dissolve political parties, with one clause calling for total party dissolution due to “serious mistakes” of its top officials. It is no small stretch to imagine the consequences, or the intended party, of this clause. The CNRP had little recourse to debate the clause because it had recently begun boycotting the National Assembly. After the legislation was introduced, Rainsy resigned from CNRP leadership and insisted in a public statement that he was stepping down for the good of the party. Rainsy was placed in a no-win scenario; he could stay in leadership and leave the CNRP embroiled in conflict with the National Assembly, or he could fall on his sword and resign from party leadership where his departure may endear him to some people as a selfless leader.

Yet, if one reads into Rainsy’s vague statements about his political future, he may not be content to sit on the sidelines for long. Rainsy utilized a similar narrative of returning to Cambodia and offering himself in a trade for the Adhoc 5, and later walked back these statements saying his return to Cambodia would not be in the best interest of the party. However, with internal CNRP elections to appoint a new president scheduled during the CNRP national convention in April 2018, increased inner party politicking and maneuvering are bound to occur.

Sokha’s daughter Monovithya points out that the media landscape has changed since the last election and that young voters are becoming more engaged and attempting to shed the strong-man tactics of personality campaigns of the past and, instead, are opting for debate and political dialogue. If populist elections throughout the world are any indication, Monovithya may be correct in her assessment of a more engaged youth and a public learning to express its political will, which could bring change in Cambodia’s future. One thing is clear: the Cambodian people are growing increasingly weary of the cyclical drama surrounding Cambodian politics.

Ms. Nicole Smolinske is a researcher with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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