Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy delivers a speech to members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) at a hotel in metro Manila, Philippines. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco
Then opposition leader Sam Rainsy delivers a speech to members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party at a hotel in metro Manila. Photo: Reuters / Romeo Ranoco

In recent months, Sam Rainsy has raised wildly different theories on how political change could come about in Cambodia, most verging on the fanciful. The acting president of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party unsuccessfully called on voters to boycott last year’s general election; he called on foreign governments to back the CNRP’s reinstatement as a legal entity; he called on the military to disobey the government; he called on the Cambodian people to “take to the streets to oust [Prime Minister] Hun Sen”; and, in recent weeks, he has called on Interior Minister Sar Kheng to launch a palace coup against Hun Sen.

“I firmly believe that Sar Kheng, Men Sam An, and other [Cambodian People’s Party] top officials will topple Hun Sen to save the CPP and avoid a mortal danger for Cambodia because of Hun Sen’s blindly serving China’s interests,” Sam Rainsy said in an interview in late April. Earlier, in a Facebook post, he queried: “Between the two rivals, Hun Sen and Sar Kheng, who will strike first? … The CNRP fully support[s] Sar Kheng if he strikes first in order to get rid of dictator and traitor Hun Sen.” On April 25, he made another appeal on Facebook for Sar Kheng to “topple Hun Sen before being himself eliminated by this brutal autocrat.”

This is hardly new thinking. Back in March he stated: “The CNRP does not demand a regime change – we extend an embrace towards the ruling party, as only these two parties can determine the destiny of Cambodia. We are considering working with the CPP, but we request that Hun Sen be removed. Removal of Hun Sen is the first step.”

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay spoke sagacity when he commented, referring to the opposition politician’s recent remarks, that Sam Rainsy simply needs to “do something because if a politician stays quiet he will lose his influence.” In other words, he needs to keep on making statements – even if those statements are eccentric – in order to remain relevant. Yet one can’t help thinking that, even if this is the case, he could choose better statements. Indeed, does he really expect Sar Kheng to be enticed by his encouragement of a palace coup?

In the past, Sar Kheng was viewed by some foreign governments as a more liberal alternative to Hun Sen, and the supposed rivalry between the pair goes back a long way – and, in part, is the continuation of old factionalism between Hun Sen and Sar Kheng’s late brother-in-law, Chea Sim, one of the ruling party’s founders. Sar Kheng’s son, Sar Sokha, a CPP lawmaker, is married to the eldest daughter of Ke Kim Yan, a former military commander-in-chief who was thought to be a Chea Sim loyalist. In 2009, Ke Kim Yan was replaced as military chief by Hun Sen’s ally Pol Saroeun. In recent years, however, Ke Kim Yan has regained some influence chairman of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, an agency under Sar Kheng’s Interior Ministry. (I’d recommend this fascinating article from the Phnom Penh Post published in 2014 for more on this factionalism.)

Yet Sar Kheng – who obviously wouldn’t reveal his actual thoughts publicly – didn’t appreciate Sam Rainsy’s latest coaxing for a palace coup, and responded with the penetrating observation that “some people just shout while living abroad. They shout from overseas that they are more patriotic than those who stay in the country.… Patriotism is not just spoken from the lips or written on paper, it is when we refuse to leave our people behind and stay with them no matter what.”

It was a cutting response; for years, Sam Rainsy has been called a coward by some quarters for his repeated ventures into self-imposed exile, and more recently has disappointed even his staunchest supporters by oscillating between promising to return to Cambodia from exile, even if the worst fate befalls him, and saying that he won’t return if he is just going to be imprisoned or worse. Though the interior minister wasn’t exactly being fair in his invective; Hun Sen and the CPP founders defected from the Khmer Rouge and fled to Vietnam to escape internal purges in the late 1970s, while the late Norodom Sihanouk spent almost two decades in exile in China until his return in the 1990s.

Mudslinging aside, does Sam Rainsy genuinely believe that there is such a level of disunity within the ruling CPP that some party grandees would risk moving against Hun Sen?

But mudslinging aside, does Sam Rainsy genuinely believe that there is such a level of disunity within the ruling CPP that some party grandees would risk moving against Hun Sen? Moreover, his comments appear at odds with the general line taken by the CNRP. For years, the opposition party’s position has been that Cambodian democracy is weak because of the way the CPP dominates almost all public institutions, from its control of the courts and the civil service to its domination of the military.

That is actually an accurate representation of the problems Cambodia faces – indeed, if democratic change is ever to take place, it will necessitate remarkable change in almost all public institutions. However, by supposedly throwing his support behind Sar Kheng and other CPP grandees – who he appears to think might be open to a coalition arrangement with the CNRP, or at least something like the ill-fated “culture of dialogue” – Sam Rainsy is now saying that the only problem is Hun Sen himself.

We arrive at a contradiction Sam Rainsy seemingly overlooks. If Cambodia is now completely dominated by Hun Sen’s “dictatorial rule,” as he put it an article he recently wrote for Project Syndicate, and the prime minister’s authority is far greater than the rest of the CPP elite, as he alludes to in other statements, then how does he imagine someone like Sar Kheng will be able to even launch a putsch? (I made my own thoughts on this clear in March in an article for The Diplomat.)

Whichever way you look at it, either Hun Sen is a dictator and has unparalleled power within the CPP – which would make the chance of a palace coup almost impossible – or he is not a dictator and only the head of a repressive party – in which case why would Sam Rainsy, a self-styled democrat, want to do business with other CPP grandees and “extend an embrace towards the ruling party”?

There is another contradiction. Sam Rainsy’s comments appear to indicate he thinks CPP politicians except Hun Sen are open to compromise and reform – why else would he say that the CNRP is “considering working with the CPP, but we request that Hun Sen be removed”? Doesn’t this indicate that Sam Rainsy now thinks some CPP politicians are open to political reform and democratic change just like the CNRP?

Yet such a view stands in stark contrast to past CNRP rhetoric that cast the CPP as forming an “illegitimate” government last year, that the general election marked the “death of democracy in Cambodia” and that the country is now an “outright dictatorship.”

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