Leading Cambodian opposition figure Kem Sokha has been under house arrest since being released from prison and is playing a long game against Prime Minister Hun Sen. Photo: AFP

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political stranglehold has seemingly tightened again around Cambodia’s banned opposition party. But questions are swirling around Phnom Penh on whether he is starting to lose his political grip. 

Most of the senior opposition party figures are now in exile, having fled the country after their Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was forcibly dissolved in November 2017 on charges of plotting a US-backed coup. 

They’ll now almost certainly remain abroad until Hun Sen says they can return, after he again prevented a prominent exiled leader from returning to Cambodia this month, the second attempt he has foiled since 2019. 

At the same time, CNRP president Kem Sokha remains under house arrest after being charged with treason in mid-2017. His trial has been consistently postponed and Hun Sen last year said it could be delayed until 2024 – after the 2022 local elections and 2023 general election.

That leaves the CNRP physically and politically divided, with very little left in its arsenal to resolve the impasse that has existed since 2017. 

Hun Sen, who this month marked 36 years in power, would appear to have his enemies where he wants them: preventing any future return by those in exile and pressuring Kem Sokha to reconstitute a much-weakened opposition party that is beholden to his ruling party. 

But this final stage of Hun Sen’s move to cripple what remains of oppositional politics in Cambodia is proving the most difficult. 

He met with Kem Sokha at a funeral last May and since then the opposition figure has been given the freedom to travel across Cambodia and meet with foreign ambassadors and his supporters. None of this would be possible without Hun Sen’s permission. 

Yet, Kem Sokha has been unwilling to put his name to any new political party or a reconstituted CNRP, most likely as he knows it will only work in Hun Sen’s favor.

This file photo from May 5, 2020, shows former Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha (R) talking with Prime Minister Hun Sen at a ceremony mourning Hun Sen’s late mother-in-law in Phnom Penh. Photo: AFP/Fresh News

Rumor mill working overtime

“We want to participate in the election, but how can we be involved? If we just form a new party to serve Hun Sen, it doesn’t make sense,” CNRP deputy president Eng Chhai Eang told Radio Free Asia this month. 

In this vacuum, rumor and gossip flourishes. 

Kem Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya, caused an uproar earlier this month when she posted a message on Twitter saying her father wants to lead an opposition party to contest the 2022 and 2023 elections. 

She later deleted the tweet without explaining if she meant the CNRP or a new political party. 

The Phnom Penh grapevine is alive with rumors of possible different configurations. 

According to one, Kem Sokha could form an alliance with his friend Yang Saing Koma, founder of the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP), which picked up about 1.1% of the vote in 2018 but which has avoided siding with the CPP government since 2018, unlike most other small parties. 

Anecdotal evidence suggests the Cambodian people are losing faith in the CNRP, but there is no reliable data on this matter and it suits vested interests for this narrative to be propagated. 

There is, indeed, some reason to doubt it. Oppositional politics has been strong among Cambodia’s electorate for decades, with the ruling CPP only having won more than 50% of the popular vote in two of the last six general elections since 1993, despite its repression ahead of any ballot and its incomparable campaign financing. 

In 2008 it took 58% of the popular vote and 78% at the rigged 2018 ballot, at which the CNRP was banned and instructed its supporters to boycott the election. More Cambodians spoiled their ballots than voted for the second-placed Funcinpec that year. 

According to Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Kem Sokha has not yet taken Hun Sen’s bait. 

Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Ranariddh, leader of the royalist FUNCINPEC party, speaks to the media after a meeting at the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh on November 27, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Token opposition

“It seems like Kem Sokha too knows this is a recipe for disaster. His CNRP-lite would become the next Funcinpec. It’s a broken record that keeps playing over and over again in Cambodia,” he added.

With impeccable timing, both in opportunism and irony, Prince Norodom Ranariddh said this week that he will return from France to once again take the helm of the royalist Funcinpec party. 

During the 1990s, Funcinpec ruled as part of a power-sharing government with Hun Sen and the CPP, despite Funcinpec actually winning the UN-organized 1993 general election.

Hun Sen was only allowed to become second prime minister after he threatened to lead several provinces to break away from the new Cambodian state. 

Nonetheless, in 1997 Funcinpec was forcibly removed from power after the CPP launched a coup. Ranariddh, who was first prime minister up until 1997, subsequently fled the country before returning after Hun Sen offered clemency. 

Over the course of the next decade or so, Funcinpec and the CPP reached some sort of agreement where the former could contest elections, but only if it never really troubled the CPP’s power.

After 2004 they entered a loose coalition government, although Hun Sen reneged on this deal two years later when he no longer needed the support of Funcinpec MPs in parliament. 

Because of Ranariddh’s embrace of Hun Sen, several former senior Funcinpec people, including former Finance Minister Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua – whose return to the country was foiled last weekend – split from the party and created what eventually became known as the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), the largest opposition group by the 2008 general election. 

In 2012, the SRP merged with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party, which came in third at the 2008 ballot, to form the CNRP. 

Hun Sen’s apparent goal is to turn Kem Sokha into the new Ranariddh, an opposition figure in name but one he can maneuver like a puppet. As such, Ranariddh’s return to politics next month provides a very clear cautionary tale for Kem Sokha of where he could end up if he accepts Hun Sen’s overtures. 

Garment factory employees on their way to work. The industry has been hit hard by the EU withdrawing some trade privileges. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Few options for ruling CPP

Yet for all that Kem Sokha appears to be in a hopeless position – under house arrest and only allowed his relative freedom by Hun Sen’s graces – he is actually the character in all of this that has the most dexterity. 

And while the CPP may appear in an even stronger position having now effectively banished the exiled opposition figures and decimated the CNRP’s activist base through years of repression, it too has very few paths open to it. 

The CPP, which came to power in 1979 after overthrowing the Khmer Rouge with Vietnamese support, agreed to a modicum of democratic competition since the late 1990s for two main reasons. 

For starters, it kept the West off his back. The United States and European Union tolerated his rule up until 2018, after the CNRP’s forced dissolution and after the CPP went on to win all 125 parliamentary seats in an election that the White House described as “neither free nor fair and failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people.” 

Since then, Brussels has partially removed some of Cambodia’s trade privileges, greatly weakening the country’s vital garment sector, and Washington has imposed some targeted sanctions on Cambodian officials. 

Secondly, Hun Sen found that having a popular opposition party could be used by the government to actually discover what reforms and changes the Cambodian people want. 

Following the 2013 general election, at which the CNRP won only four percentage points less than the ruling party in the popular vote, the CPP government usurped all but one of the opposition party’s seven-point plan it had campaigned on. 

Now without any major opposition party and with the authorities keen on stamping out any criticism whenever it appears, however, Hun Sen’s government struggles to know the thoughts of ordinary Cambodians. 

But all this begs a larger question: In whose better interests is it to wait out the current impasse?

If Hun Sen continues with his one-party rule at the next two elections, it could potentially see the EU deprive Cambodia of even more trade privileges. 

US President Barack Obama and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at an ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh on November 19, 2012. Hun Sen’s relationship with the US has had its ups and downs. Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad

Hun Sen plans ahead

Washington could also take stiffer action under President Joe Biden, who on the campaign trail said he would put human rights at the top of his agenda.

At the same time, a lack of resolution to the CNRP question will continue to destabilize Hun Sen’s apparent plan to one day hand power to one of his sons, most likely his eldest, the de-facto military chief Hun Manet. 

It is believed Hun Sen will either step down ahead of the 2023 general election, which will then be treated as some form of a plebiscite on his anointed successor, or he carries the party through that ballot and then retires.

But any successor will lack Hun Sen’s political cunning and manipulation, yet they would inherit the same intractable problems he now faces with the CNRP if it goes unresolved. 

Another option, moving in for the kill by imprisoning Kem Sokha for treason, is also fraught.  

This would pull the last remaining rug out from under the feet of the CNRP, but convicting Kem Sokha would most probably result in even greater sanctions from the West. 

That would hamper the CPP government’s ability to recover economically from the pandemic year and to ensure ordinary Cambodians a slightly higher standard of living each year, the ruling party’s main source of legitimacy. 

But if Kem Sokha is found not guilty at his trial, then it essentially admits that Hun Sen has been lying about the CNRP plotting a coup since 2017. 

Many pundits believe the ruling party will try a happy medium, convicting Kem Sokha of treason but immediately pardoning him by Hun Sen. That’s if the trial ever goes to court.

The only option for Hun Sen that wouldn’t inflict wounds on his own rule is to turn Kem Sokha away from the rest of his CNRP colleagues and to reconstitute him back into the political fold, as head of the reformed CNRP that takes the heat off Phnom Penh from Western critics and provides a glimmer of democracy in the country. 

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

But Kem Sokha isn’t playing ball – and perhaps for the good reason that he knows he holds all the cards. Making no decision on the future, it seems, is the best decision he could make right now.   

For sure, the CNRP’s exiled leaders will remain abroad and Kem Sokha’s freedom within the country is limited. But unless Hun Sen acts to convict and imprison him, then this leaves open the possibility that the CNRP could be reformed in its pre-2017 appearance at some point in the future. 

More to the point, by not making a decision, Kem Sokha puts all the responsibility onto Hun Sen to act, potentially in ways that weaken the prime minister’s future plans. 

As we inch closer to the next two elections, in 2022 and 2023, the pressure will build on Hun Sen to either relent or launch his final attack, both of which risk creating major problems for the CPP government. 

In reality, then, both the CPP and the CNRP have found themselves in something of a stalemate. And the only character in this political play who can move the scene forwards is Kem Sokha, who right now appears happy to play the waiting game.