Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy (front left) raises hands with Kem Sokha in 2014. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodian opposition leaders Sam Rainsy, front left, raises the hand of Kem Sokha in 2014. The relationship between the two has always been fragile, but has now become strained. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Almost a decade of what was always a marriage of necessity looks to be drawing to a close as Cambodia’s embattled opposition leaders clashed over the weekend. 

On November 28, Kem Sokha lashed out at his opposition ally, the self-exiled Sam Rainsy, for the first time publicly since the forced dissolution of their Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017. 

Rainsy and Sokha merged their two respective parties in 2012 to form the CNRP, which in the following year’s general election almost defeated the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the ruling party since 1979.

After gaining even more ground at commune elections in June 2017, the pliant Supreme Court forcibly dissolved the CNRP months later on spurious accusations of plotting a US-backed coup. Sokha, who took over as party president in early 2017 from Rainsy, was arrested for treason that year. He still awaits his day in court. 

But the CNRP was never a stable family even before its forced ban. It was divided between the officials who arrived from Rainsy’s eponymous party (SRP) and Sokha’s Human Rights Party (HRP). 

These fissures only widened after its ban, which led many of the party’s politicians to join Rainsy into exile. Those who stayed were picked off, harassed or jailed, by the increasingly authoritarian government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen. 

The cause of the recent public rupture appears to have been the resurgence of the Candlelight Party, the successor to Rainsy’s SRP that held a special congress the previous day. 

By amending its bylaws and setting up a new party structure, pundits say the Candlelight Party, presumably with Rainsy’s blessing, will try to compete in next June’s commune council elections, where it could go up against almost six new parties created recently by former CNRP politicians. 

After years of inaction – it did not compete in the 2018 general election – it has recently begun political activities in several provinces and opened new offices across the country. 

In August, the Candlelight Party’s president, Teav Vannol, publicly distanced it from Rainsy, as any direct association might lead to the party’s dissolution. But Sokha didn’t see it that way. 

“Obviously Sam Rainsy and his colleagues walked away from our original principles and spirit of unity by creating various other political movements and taking new positions themselves, especially recently. They have returned to openly supporting their old Candlelight party,” Sokha wrote on his Facebook page on November 28, according to local media translations.

“The actions prove that Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha are not united as one person because all of these activities have no support from me nor are they my positions,” he added, referring to the “one person” slogan Sam Rainsy has used since 2012. 

Rainsy attempted to pour cold water over the rift. “Kem Sokha’s statement is the result of threats from Hun Sen who dreads unity among Cambodian democrats and who is holding Kem Sokha hostage,” he tweeted on November 29. 

However, that might not be the case. Even before Sokha’s comments at the weekend, his purported allies had begun briefing the media with criticisms of the Candlelight Party’s activity. 

Last week Muth Chantha, his former chief of staff, told Khmer Times that despite the Candlelight Party’s name change, it “still belongs to Sam Rainsy and he still stands behind it.”

Former Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy, left, speaks as party president Kem Sokha listens in front of the National Assembly building during a rally to mark Human Rights Day in Phnom Penh on December 10, 2014. Photo: AFP/ Tang Chhin Sothy

A party in crisis

After merging to form the CNRP in 2012, the SRP remained active because it had won 11 seats in the Senate at that year’s election for the upper chamber.

In 2018, it renamed itself the Candlelight Party to avoid overt association with its exiled former leader, who was banned from politics and has now collected a slew of politically-motivated criminal convictions. A change to the Law on Political Parties in 2018 also forbade the use of people’s names in political party titles. 

In early November this year, political analyst Seng Sary predicted that by holding a congress, the Candlelight Party’s return would herald the last stage in the splintering of the CNRP. 

While Rainsy and Sokha agreed on many political issues, including their anti-Vietnamese racism, they ruled over a divided party. The two factions of the CNRP collected donations from their own supporters abroad. Party positions overlapped. Figures from each faction gossiped to the press.  

As early as October 2016, Prince Sisowath Thomico, a prominent CNRP official, threatened to quit the party if there were no reforms to the way it was run. “The main issue is division. Behind the unity of Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, everything else is divided and this is not acceptable,” he said. 

Rainsy fled into self-exile in late 2015 to avoid the threat of arrest, which the authorities then turned into a formal exile when they banned him from returning to the country a year later. He handed over the party presidency in early 2017 to avoid a threat of its dissolution. 

Some party members accused Rainsy of cowardice for leaving and not returning, in comparison with Sokha, who stayed. Sokha was released from jail in 2018 and from house arrest in late 2019 on the condition he doesn’t discuss politics, which his latest utterances would appear to violate.

However, he has been allowed to tour the country freely and meet with foreign ambassadors. 

And then there were the family disputes. In 2016, Sokha’s daughter Kem Monovithya, who was also the CNRP’s deputy director-general of public affairs, started lashing out publicly at Rainsy. 

This week, following her father’s criticisms of Rainsy, she was even more cutting. “Sam Rainsy has been a narcissistic, abusive, gaslighting, sociopathic partner to Kem Sokha,” she told Voice of Democracy, a local outlet. 

It is also believed that Rainsy’s own family, particularly Tioulong Saumura, his wife and a former CNRP parliamentarian, has long been suspicious of Sokha’s intentions. 

Kek Galabru, president of the human rights group Licadho, reportedly told the US embassy in March 2007 that she had discussed the issue of Rainsy and Sokha joining forces and, while the pair appeared to be willing to unite, Saumura did not seem prepared to put personal ambitions aside.  

“Saumura … has always been wary of Kem Sokha’s ambitions.  She appears not to trust [Sokha], believing that he may be being pushed directly and/or indirectly by the CPP as a tool against Rainsy,” stated a leaked US cable.

This, again, is now the fear of some of Rainsy’s allies, they say in private. Sokha’s trial for treason charges has been repeatedly postponed for years and most analysts believe Hun Sen intends to use him as a patsy.  

Either Sokha is being pressured to leave politics for good in return for clemency, which would all but demolish the CNRP, or he is being pressured to return as the head of a reconstituted CNRP that would tacitly pledge to not rock the political boat, a situation which would exclude Rainsy and other exiled politicians from the party. 

So far, Sokha does not appear to have taken the bait, even after he met with Hun Sen privately at a funeral last year. 

Former Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha, right, talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen at a ceremony mourning Hun Sen’s mother-in-law in Phnom Penh. Photo: AFP / Fresh News

Splintered opposition

An alternative explanation is that Hun Sen has been content all along to simply keep Sokha in custody and let the CNRP tear itself apart. His government has twice prevented Rainsy and his followers from returning to the country, even though the opposition figure said he was willing to be arrested if he did. 

All the while, Hun Sen has likely known that the opposition movement would grow more desperate as the 2022 commune election and 2023 general election drew nearer. On the one hand, no one expects them to be free and fair elections. Yet, on the other, not to compete would self-silence the opposition movement for at least another five years. 

So far, six political parties have been created by former CNRP members. As is usual in Cambodian politics, some have been accused of doing Hun Sen’s bidding, created in order to divide the opposition vote. Others are accused of being vanity projects for egotistical politicians. 

At the 2018 general election, at which the CPP won all 125 seats in parliament, voters cast more spoiled ballots than voted for the second-placed Funcinpec party. Some 19 opposition parties competed in that election, of which 12 were new and only five won more than 1% of the popular vote. 

At next June’s commune election and, presumably, the general election in 2023, there are likely to be an even greater number of political parties. 

The Cambodia Reform Party was formed in May by Sokha allies Ou Chanrath and Pol Ham. It and other splinter parties have campaigned in recent months to try to unite opposition forces, although with little success. Sokha previously asked the new CNRP splinter parties not to use his name. 

However, there are suggestions that Sokha’s factional friends are trying to steal the show, which may explain why the Rainsy-aligned Candlelight Party is now eager to regain ground, further cementing the Rainsy-Sokha chasm. 

Its newly appointed spokesman Thach Setha, also the party’s first vice-president, is a Rainsy stalwart. He was the co-founder of the Khmer Nation Party, Rainsy’s first party that was formed in 1995, but which had to be renamed as the SRP two years later because of government pressure. 

In early November, the Candlelight Party also welcomed back former SRP senator Hong Sok Hour, who was released from prison in 2017 after years behind bars for “incitement.” 

“The Candlelight Party is our previous home,” Som Sovanna, the former CNRP chief of Lolork Sar commune in Pursat city, told local media this month, an indication that opposition politics may now be returning to their pre-CNRP days. 

There is another factor to all this, too. Rainsy is now 72. Sokha is 68. Mu Sochua, another long-time opposition leader and CNRP vice-president, is 67. Hun Sen, who now faces tough questions about his own succession plans, is 69. 

If, to quell disunity, the opposition were to forfeit the upcoming elections over the next two years and wait for the following general election, in 2028, Rainsy would be an octogenarian by then. Most of the other current opposition grandees would be approaching the natural age for political retirement.

For these figures, who have led Cambodia’s opposition movement since the mid-1990s, time is against them. And the breakdown of the CNRP might be the price that has to be paid. A political epoch now appears to be coming to a natural close. 

The end of all that

November 28 will go down in Cambodian history as a defining day for politics. Not only did Sokha appear to indicate his break from Rainsy, a partnership that has reshaped politics since the early 2010s. 

On the same day, news broke that former co-prime minister Norodom Ranariddh had passed away in France, aged 77. Information Minister Khieu Kanharith announced it on his Facebook page.

From the 1990s until the late 2000s, Cambodian politics was defined by the personal and political truel between Hun Sen, Rainsy and Ranariddh.

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

Ranariddh, the second-eldest son of King Norodom Sihanouk, led the royalist Funcinpec party to victory at the momentous 1993 general election, which was overseen by the United Nations. 

But Hun Sen, who had been prime minister since 1985 under the Vietnamese-backed socialist government, and his CPP kicked up such a fuss that they were allowed to share power. 

In 1997, Hun Sen removed Ranariddh as co-prime minister in a bloody “coup,” which killed dozens and forced Ranariddh to enter one of his many periods of exile. 

Despite the coup, Ranariddh, who was known for his thirst for power and gullible political ambitions, later agreed for his Funcinpec party to re-enter two coalition governments with Hun Sen. 

Rainsy, a long-time Funcinpec member, was named Finance Minister in 1993 but dismissed from the post and expelled from that party the following year. At the time, it was widely suspected that Rainsy was a leadership challenger to Ranariddh within Funcinpec, and perhaps even enjoyed greater affections from King Sihanouk, Ranariddh’s father. 

Rainsy and Ranariddh, both joint French citizens, cut their political teeth in the early 1980s by opposing the Hanoi-backed government, which Hun Sen had helped to put into power in 1979 when, after defecting, returned with Vietnamese forces to overthrow the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. 

Ranariddh’s political downfall was cemented in 2006 when, with Rainsy’s help, the ruling party voted in parliament to amend the rules to mean only a simple majority was needed to form a government, instead of a two-thirds majority. 

After this, Hun Sen no longer had any need of Funcinpec or Ranariddh, as his CPP could form a government without a coalition partner. It is widely suspected that Rainsy sided with Hun Sen on that occasion to take revenge against Ranariddh, who usually went into general elections on the promise of an alliance with Rainsy only to fold afterwards and join Hun Sen in coalition. 

Rainsy later told the journalist Sebastian Strangio: “I wanted to get rid of Funcinpec … The CPP used Ranariddh to create problems for me … They had some influence because they use the two-thirds majority; so I said, to hell with the two-thirds majority.”

All that is now history. And, so too, it is beginning to appear, is the political experiment that was the CNRP.