With commune elections next year and the national election the year after, it is a bad time for fractures to be forming in the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Cambodia’s opposition party was formed out of an alliance between Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party and the Sam Rainsy Party in 2012. The CNRP’s strong results in the 2013 elections and skill at harnessing social media to appeal to the nation’s huge youth vote could make the party a force to be reckoned with at the next elections. However, the relationship between the party’s two leaders has increasingly appeared strained.
Sam Rainsy has not been back to Cambodia in almost a year. Last November the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued an arrest warrant over charges relating to a seven-year old defamation charge filed by the former Foreign Minister. Facing two years’ prison, Rainsy decided not to return from his trip to South Korea and instead flew to France to begin his third period of self-imposed exile in the past ten years.
On 26 May, Rainsy’s deputy Kem Sokha moved into his party’s headquarters and continues to live there in order to avoid arrest over a politically motivated “prostitution” case which has already landed a number of NGO workers in prison.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) must have been pretty happy with this result. While the government has a great deal of experience incarcerating its political opponents (one NGO estimates 27 have been imprisoned since May last year), locking up the two opposition leaders would likely have caused a scene both domestically and internationally. Much better to have the two men lock themselves away in the lead up to the elections.
Rainsy’s decision to stay in France has alienated some supporters, particularly when many others don’t have the option to flee to a foreign country when faced with arrest. In contrast, Sokha’s choice to remain in the capital, albeit holed up in the CNRP headquarters, could have provided a much needed symbol the Party around which could rally. However, something about the nature of his detention also doesn’t quite sit right.
The day Kem Sokha decided to move into his office, armed police had first stopped his car on a central Phnom Penh boulevard (it turned out he was not in the car) and later arrived at the headquarters seemingly to arrest him although they had no warrant. However, since that day no real attempt has been made to arrest the acting opposition leader.
The government has announced it will make no attempt to arrest him until the appeals process has been exhausted in the courts. While of course a lack of faith in Cambodia’s judicial institutions is to be expected, in October he managed a trip out of the building to enrol to vote without incident. Thriving on his ability to stir up a crowd at rallies, by remaining indoors the acting CNRP leader has considerably stunted his capacity to reach voters.
Sam Rainsy has recently appeared more sensitive to criticism of his decision to hide in France. A few weeks ago he announced that he had offered himself as a replacement for the release of 15 opposition activists and officials currently imprisoned — an offer which apparently the prisoners rejected. This somewhat absurd proposition, especially from a man who has not seemed so concerned with the plight of his colleagues before, has rung hollow for many.
Previously staying largely quiet on the subject, recently Kem Sokha has also weighed in on his leader’s absence, saying in an interview that it would be better if Sam Rainsy returned to the country.
Kem Monovithya, Kem Sokha’s daughter and CNRP deputy director of public affairs, has also publicly criticised the Party’s absent leader. On Twitter she referred to Sam Rainsy’s offer to replace the senators in prison as “melodramatic” and wrote: “Somebody watches too much movies on their free time” (sic). The official CNRP spokesperson responded by saying that only he speaks for the party and said that: “We no more pay attention to what she says.”
With criticism mounting about his absence, it must have been almost a relief for Rainsy when, last week, the government announced he is now officially banned from returning to the country. The immigration department issued an order to officials no to allow Rainsy to re-enter Cambodia by land, sea or air, instructing airlines not to allow him to board flights. It almost goes without saying that the ban does not appear to have any legal basis.
This move clearly indicates the government would prefer Rainsy stay away rather than risk him becoming a symbol for protest if he returns and is arrested. For his part, Rainsy appeared pleased with the news, responding: “I am no longer the ‘Cambodian opposition leader in self-imposed exile’, as foreign journalists used to write about me.”
The move by the government was a double win for Rainsy – at once strengthening his excuse for continuing to live in France while also increasing international attention to his situation. The United Nations has now called on the Cambodian Government to explain the reasoning behind its decision not to allow Rainsy back in the country, which it claims violated international conventions to which Cambodia is a signatory.
Hun Sen asked the King to grant Sam Rainsy a royal pardon just weeks before the July 2013 election, allowing him to return from almost four years in France just in time to see his party win more seats than anyone expected.
Rainsy still vows to return before the 2018 elections. However, with cracks beginning to form in the Rainsy-Sokha alliance and the two men either in exile or hiding, it is hard to see how the CNRP will inspire the support that almost got the party elected in 2013.
Ana McKenzie is a pen name. The author is a long-time observer of Cambodia.