Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures as he shouts slogans on the last day of the commune election campaign in Phnom Penh on June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Hun Sen gestures on the commune election campaign trail, Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

While Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government unleashes a fresh crackdown on civil society, nongovernmental organizations and independent media, the country’s main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been mostly silent.

Many analysts suspect the clampdown on free expression and grass roots organizing aims to give the ruling Cambodian People’s Party a decisive edge at next year’s vitally important general election. The CPP has frequently accused civil society groups of supporting the CNRP.

Mu Sochua, one of the CNRP’s vice-presidents, told Asia Times on Friday that the “CNRP has made very clear its stance for democracy, which includes an independent media and a vibrant civil society.” Other CNRP politicians have posted Facebook messages and made similar media comments, but many feel the party hasn’t gone far enough in its condemnation.

The Cambodia Daily, a local broadsheet that faces closure on September 4 for alleged tax evasion, addressed today the CNRP’s perceived inaction, which strikes a stark contrast with its spirited campaigning at nationwide commune elections in June this year. The CPP handily won those elections, but the CNRP made up significant electoral ground.

It quoted CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay, who said yesterday that “we really do not know, at the moment, what to do.” He said while the opposition party doesn’t want to look like it can be intimidated into silence, it is also imperative that the party survives until the next general election is held in July 2018.

It’s a view shared by most political commentators. “[The CNRP’s] priority now is to survive through until the elections next year, hence the silence,” said Sophal Ear, Associate Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.

Changes to the Law on Political Parties, made abruptly in February, forced then CNRP leader Sam Rainsy to step down to avoid dissolution. More amendments made in July have effectively sidelined the exiled Sam Rainsy from participating in any political capacity, even as a CNRP supporter from abroad.

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy (front left) raises hands with Kem Sokha in 2014. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy
Self-exiled former Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy (front left) raises hands with current CNRP President Kem Sokha in 2014. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

The government has long accused the CNRP of being too close to NGOs, including those that the government is now shutting down or investigating for tax issues.

The National Democratic Institute (NDI), a US State Department-funded democracy-promoting organization, was ordered to cease operations last week and its staff given seven days to leave the country. The government accused NDI of providing the CNRP advice on how to overthrow the CPP. Both NDI and CNRP deny the claim as baseless.

This is hardly new. The CNRP’s current president, Kem Sokha, who took up the role in February, was the founder of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. Between 2002 and 2007, the local NGO was funded by the International Republican Institute (IRI), an American pro-democracy group that is funded by the US government with ties to the Republican Party.

As early as 2002, Kem Sokha and IRI were accused by Cambodia’s main political parties as trying to upend them, sometimes not unjustly, according to some analysts.

“It’s worth bearing in mind that… in the early 2000s the IRI was open in its support for the Sam Rainsy Party,” a predecessor of the CNRP, said Sebastian Strangio, author of the book ‘Hun Sen’s Cambodia.’ “IRI Cambodia alumni in the US Congress have been the driving force behind the steady stream of anti-Hun Sen resolutions.”

IRI staff were allegedly close to US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who in the late 1990s spearheaded motions to suspend aid to Cambodia.

Cambodia's opposition National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporter Yon Kimhour arrives to the court to hear a verdict over insurrection charges against him and two more opposition supporters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia June 13, 2016. REUTERS/Samrang Pring - RTX2FWH7
Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporter Yon Kimhour arrives at court to hear a verdict over insurrection charges against him and two more opposition supporters in Phnom Penh, June 13, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

More recently, the so-called “Adhoc Five,” a group of current and former rights workers from a local NGO, were accused of bribing the alleged mistress of Kem Sokha last year to deny that she had an affair with the politician. Adhoc says it merely provided the woman with legal and financial assistance when she sought the group’s help.

The five spent more than a year in jail before being released on bail in June, while Kem Sokha spent most of last year hiding in the CNRP’s Phnom Penh headquarters to avoid arrest on what he considered a politically-motivated case against him.

In June, the Interior Ministry made it known the government was investigating certain NGOs for allegedly aiding the CNRP. The ministry did not specify any cases at the time, but said only that several “were working to serve the opposition party”, according to a ministry spokesman.

“We have not yet put any NGOs or civil society organizations on the blacklist but we will take action if we find those organizations are working to serve the opposition party,” the spokesman told local media.

While the government claims a conspiracy between NGOs and the CNRP, which most civil-society groups deny, it seems clear that much of their grass roots and advocacy work pushing for change inevitably benefits the opposition.

Analysts note that when an NGO calls out the CPP-led government for human rights abuses or corruption it indirectly supports the CNRP’s critique of the ruling party.

All of this points to a government campaign to “isolate the CNRP” so that it is a lone voice by next year’s election, said Sereiboth Noan, a local blogger.

Supporters of President of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) attend a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Samrang Pring - RTX38NZ3
Supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) attend a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

But how long will the CNRP keep its head down for the sake of political survival ahead of an election it believes it can win, and at what point do party leaders decide the calculated silence is no longer tenable?

“The CNRP’s silence is deafening. Given how aloof they are compared to opposition parties in other authoritarian regimes, however, this weakness is not surprising,” said Lee Morgenbesser, author of “Behind the Façade: Elections under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia.”

“The CNRP’s lack of commitment to an independent press and a vocal civil society underscores the fact that they have never developed a strategy beyond just blithely competing in elections,” he added.

For now, it appears the CNRP is confident that a voiceless Cambodian public will still hear its message of reform and change, and vote out the CPP after four decades in power.

“A legitimate government can only be born from the will of the people,” Mu Sochua, the CNRP vice-president, told Asia Times. “Democracy is rapidly coming to a very critical point and can be further suspended as we are moving to the 2018 election.”