Divide and conquer is a tactic known by all autocrats, but few have wielded the tool as efficaciously as Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest ruling leaders.
For years, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s largest and only viable opposition party, was kept in a state of anxiety, equidistant between success and eradication.
The latter finally came in November when the Supreme Court formally dissolved the party after ruling it was plotting to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The CPP is now all but certain to win July’s general election virtually unopposed.
Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s president, had been arrested months earlier on treason charges and still remains in jail.
While conquer was the eventual tactic of the government, it had spent years attempting division, not the most arduous of tasks in the country’s fractious, personality-driven politics.
For years, the Phnom Penh grapevine was ripe with rumors about factional rivalries and personal spats within the CNRP. It wasn’t unusual for junior politicians to complain about being overlooked and tuned out.
The main problem stemmed from the CNRP’s formation, a merger in 2012 between Sam Rainsy and his eponymous party (SRP), and Kem Sokha, who led the Human Rights Party (HRP). For most of its existence, the CNRP was divided between these factions.
When Prince Sisowath Thomico, a prominent CNRP politician, threatened to quit the party in October 2016, he said: “The main issue is division. Behind the unity of Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, everything else is divided and this is not acceptable.”
Despite the divides, the CNRP was electorally successful. It almost won the 2013 general election, receiving 44% of the popular vote. Last June, it increased its number of local officials at the commune elections, typically dominated by the CPP in the past.
But if the CNRP papered over its cracks while on the ascendancy, keenly aware that unity was its greatest strength, since its dissolution some of these schisms have been widened.
In January, a number of senior CNRP leaders, including vice-presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhai Eang, as well as Sam Rainsy, formed a new organization in America, the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM). Hard to miss was that many of the signatories trace their lineage back to the SRP.
The movement’s formation raised the ire of some Kem Sokha supporters. Some argued the CNRM was only formed so that Sam Rainsy could once again wield power, after he was forced to step down as CNRP president in early 2017 to avoid the party’s dissolution because of his past politicized criminal defamation convictions.
Others said it would be ruinous to the CNRP’s name, claiming it to be better for all members to remain under the same banner, despite the party’s dissolution in Cambodia. Kem Sokha, from prison, said he did not support the new group.
Opposition supporters have also been slinging mud on social media and in private over who bears responsibility for the party’s dissolution.
One Phnom Penh-based CNRP loyalist, who asked not to be named, says the party’s dissolution was the fault of Sam Rainsy, who continued to criticize Hun Sen after stepping down as CNRP president.
Another supporter suggests the party became overly confident after its success at last June’s commune election and should have foreseen another attack from the ruling party.
However, the majority of CNRP supporters told Asia Times that they think the CNRP was dissolved simply because it was likely to win July’s general election and the CPP wanted to prevent that from happening. It’s a view supported by many political observers.
Regardless of the reason, the CNRP is for all intents and purposes “now dead, not only because of its dissolution by the Cambodian government, but also because the CNRP’s factionalism,” says Paul Chambers, a lecturer at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand.
The long-running rivalry between Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy has “now become institutionalized in the form of the CNRP versus the CNRM,” Chambers added.
That might be the case, but five months on from the CNRP’s dissolution and three months after the CNRM’s formation, some opposition leaders are urging reconciliation.
When Eng Chhay Eang spoke to supporters on Facebook Live on April 1, his message was one of unity. “We must use only one voice,” he told supporters.
In America, where many former CNRP officials now find themselves in exile, members of each clique have shared platforms and speaking engagements.
“Is the spirit of the CNRP still alive? Of course it’s still alive. The CNRM intends to be a placeholder for when the CNRP is reconstituted,” says Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party – North America (CNRP-NA), composed of chapters from different American states, was formed after the HRP and SRP merged in 2012. It was formerly the SRP-NA.
But, in 2014, a number of members and state chapters, supposedly those loyal to the HRP, broke away to create the CNRP-USA. Today, this group appears to have remained loyal to those who want to remain under the CNRP banner.
But Phan Prak, a representative of the CNRP-USA, says the organization “is not against the CNRM nor have we ever supported it. The CNRP-USA respects an individual to exercise their rights to join any organizations as they wish.”
While there are attempts by government-aligned media to portray divisions within the opposition as a sign of its feebleness, another interpretation is that internal disputes ought to be welcomed in any pro-democracy party or movement.
Indeed, a positive reading of current events is that voices ignored in the past are now being allowed to air their thoughts and grievances. Some political analysts think this is an opportunity for a younger generation of opposition figures to emerge.
“It is so important for the opposition party to have new blood in its leadership. Leaders in the opposition party should be the mentors for the new blood,” says Noan Sereiboth, a political blogger.
There are some indications that is happening. Kem Sokha’s eldest daughter, Kem Monovithya, 36, has been one of the most active and vocal figures, meeting with US senators last month and Japanese officials last week. She declined to comment for this article.
At the same time, analysts say there is the danger that if infighting continues there will only be one winner: Hun Sen. If fissures go unresolved then it would be the “nail in the coffin of the one formula that seemed to work: the creation of a unified opposition,” says academic Sophal Ear.