Supporters of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) gather in a rally on the last day of the commune election campaign in Phnom Penh on June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

An exiled Cambodian opposition leader failed in yet another bid to return home last weekend following the forced dissolution of her party in late 2017, a sign that the country’s three-year political stalemate might be reaching an anti-democratic conclusion.

Mu Sochua, vice president of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was on January 17 prevented from boarding a flight from Los Angeles to Phnom Penh, transiting through Singapore, as she did not have a visa to enter Cambodia.

After her Cambodian passport was revoked by the government in 2019, dual US citizen Mu Sochua had planned to travel on her American passport but had her visa denied by the Cambodian Embassy in the US.

She was one of the dozens of politicians who fled into exile in late 2017 after the CNRP, the only viable opposition party in Cambodia, was forcibly dissolved by the Supreme Court on spurious charges of plotting a US-backed coup to overthrow the government. Its 55 parliamentarians were stripped of their seats and immunity from prosecution.

Sam Rainsy, CNRP president until early 2017, had left for exile in 2015 to escape a slew of politically-motivated charges including defamation. His successor, Kem Sokha, a co-founder of the CNRP, was arrested in September 2017 on treason charges, which the Cambodian courts have delayed bringing to trial ever since. He remains under house arrest.

Mu Sochua was trying to return to Cambodia to appear in person at a mass trial of more than 100 individuals tied to the banned party that began this month, most stemming from alleged involvement in an earlier plan by exiled CNRP leaders to return home.

Mu Sochua showing a logo of her now banned CNRP in a file photo. Photo: AFP

In November 2019, Sam Rainsy and several other opposition grandees including Mu Sochua were denied entrance after Cambodia’s government threatened retaliation against any airline that flew them into Phnom Penh.

It also lobbied neighboring Thailand to deny them entrance, preventing them from walking across the border. Cambodian prosecutors claim those who took part in this planned return or who allegedly aided it are guilty of crimes ranging from treason to endangering public security.

All this leaves the CNRP at an apparent political dead end. It’s now clear that the exiled leaders will only be able to return if Prime Minister Hun Sen allows them to, says Sebastian Strangio, a journalist and author of a book on Hun Sen’s Cambodia.

At the same time, CNRP figures still in Cambodia including Kem Sokha will continue to be harassed by authorities until they either quit politics altogether or agree to reform a demoralized opposition party that is willingly subservient to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

This is indicative of Hun Sen’s textbook divide-and-rule, tactics that have allowed him to remain in power for 36 consecutive years, making him the current longest-ruling head of government in the world.

It was well-known before the CNRP’s forced dissolution in 2017 that it was deeply divided between the two parties that merged in 2012: Sam Rainsy’s eponymous party, which had been the largest opposition group pre-2012, and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party.

With Kem Sokha and many of his followers still in Cambodia and CNRP members traditionally allied to Sam Rainsy, including Mu Sochua, it hasn’t been a difficult task for Hun Sen to accentuate and exploit these divisions.

Sam Rainsy (front left) raises hands with Kem Sokha in 2014. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

“There’s no [benefit] for Hun Sen to allow exiled CNRPers to return. Keeping them away is better than allowing them to return to Cambodia to create chaos or reignite the opposition momentum,” says Kimkong Heng, a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland.

“CNRP leaders must reinvent their strategies. Repeatedly saying that they will return but later couldn’t only make supporters lose interest in the party,” he added.

Indeed, there are questions about whether they can sustain interest and momentum. It now seems unlikely that the exiled CNRP figures will attempt to return until Hun Sen is ready to accept reconciliation on his own terms, which might not be for many years. That leaves them with the only option of campaigning and protesting from abroad.

But it is widely speculated that Hun Sen is trying to secure some sort of agreement with Kem Sokha so that the opposition leader could return to politics, though in a greatly weakened state.

The pair met briefly in mid-2020 at a funeral and Kem Sokha has been allowed to travel extensively around Cambodia, even meeting with foreign diplomats and supporters. This, analysts note, wouldn’t have happened without Hun Sen’s blessing.

So far, there is little evidence that Kem Sokha has acquiesced to or seriously entertained Hun Sen’s overtures. Recently the prime minister said that Kem Sokha’s trial for treason could be pushed back until after the next general election in 2023, despite repeatedly stating that he doesn’t interfere in judicial processes.

Most analysts expect that Kem Sokha will be found guilty of treason, despite a lack of evidence, but then swiftly handed a royal pardon by Hun Sen. If Kem Sokha is allowed to reform a weakened CNRP ahead of the 2023 general election, it will almost certainly not be able to campaign effectively.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is facing more pressure to reform from the US. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

By winning 55 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly at the 2013 general election – at which the ruling party only won four percentage points more than its competitor in the popular vote – CNRP parliamentarians gained the financial and logistical capabilities to campaign in even the most rural of Cambodia’s provinces.

After making considerable gains at local elections in June 2017, overturning the ruling CPP’s near two-decade monopoly on commune posts, the CNRP would have been able to campaign even more intensely ahead of the 2018 general election.

But the CNRP was dissolved just five months after the local elections in 2017, a result of Hun Sen’s fears that his CPP might have been ousted from power at the ballot box.

“To conclude that Kem Sokha is the only solution is to play Phnom Penh’s game. That’s what they’d like to see: a totally divided and conquered CNRP,” said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

“They want those outside to remain outside and those inside to be arrested and on trial,” he added.

In Hun Sen’s ideal world, Kem Sokha would re-create a greatly weakened CNRP ahead of the 2023 general election in order to also give the ballot greater legitimacy in the international community.

After the CNRP was forcibly dissolved in 2017, the ruling CPP went on to win all 125 seats in the National Assembly at the 2018 general election, effectively turning Cambodia into a one-party system. Hun Sen’s government has faced constant criticism from the West, with punitive sanctions now risking economic progress and geopolitical stability.

The US has imposed targeted sanctions on several Cambodian figures, including the former head of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit. Meanwhile, the European Union last year partially removed Cambodia’s trade privileges due to the political deterioration in the country since 2017.

Hun Sen’s close alliance with China has sparked major complaints from Washington, especially over allegations that Phnom Penh will soon allow the Chinese military to be stationed in the country, accusations the Cambodian government denies.

It is also widely rumored that Hun Sen, 68, is now planning his retirement and his preferred option would be to hand over power to his eldest son, the de facto military chief Hun Manet.

Hun Manet, the son of Cambodian leader Hun Sen, is widely speculated to become prime minister when his father steps aside. Image: Facebook

However, this father-to-son handover faces stiff resistance from some within the CPP who consider Hun Manet inexperienced, while a dynastic succession would be incredibly risky while the CNRP question is not yet resolved.

The CPP’s attack on the CNRP appears to be reaching a climax. With exiled CNRP figureheads unable to return and Kem Sokha being pressured to concede to an agreement on Hun Sen’s terms, the party elite could soon be irrevocably divided and bereft of new ideas.

Talk of pushing through a younger, newer generation of opposition leaders has been broached but would appear to do little good while the party is banned at home. Meanwhile, the current leaders’ lobbying of foreign governments hasn’t yet produced the international responses needed to bring Hun Sen to the negotiating table.

At the same time, continuous harassment and imprisonment of the opposition group’s grassroots activist base, including the mass trial now taking place in Phnom Penh, is severing the banned party’s connections with ordinary Cambodians.

“The main hope for opposition politics is that Kem Sokha will be allowed to return to some sort of formal political role before elections in 2022 and 2023, but even then it is hard to see them being granted the freedom to compete effectively,” said Strangio.

“The only opposition that Hun Sen seems willing to permit is a domesticated one,” he added.