Kem Sokha, left, and Sam Rainsy in happier times. Photo: WikiCommons

The apparent breakdown of Cambodia’s opposition partnership, after Kem Sokha last weekend fired off a rare rebuke of his ally Sam Rainsy, has descended into a shouting match.

One of Sokha’s daughters this week accused Rainsy of “racism” and “sexism,” while his other daughter, an important figure in opposition circles, called the self-exiled opposition figure “a narcissistic, abusive, gaslighting, sociopathic partner.”  

In 2012, Rainsy and Sokha agreed to merge their respective parties to create a united opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). It narrowly lost to the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) at the following year’s general election, but was forcibly dissolved in November 2017 on unsupported accusations of plotting a US-backed coup. 

Rainsy fled Cambodia in late 2015 to avoid politically-motivated court cases and has remained in exile since, while Sokha was arrested for treason in September 2017 and has yet to have his day in court. He was released from house arrest in 2019. 

On November 28, Sokha took to social media to accuse Rainsy of breaking their almost decade-old alliance after the resumption of activities by Rainsy’s old party. 

Last month, the Candlelight Party opened new branches across the country and held a special congress to elect new figures and agree on a program ahead of commune elections next year and a general election in 2023. 

“I call on Mr Sam Rainsy and his groups to stop abusing me by using my name and photo in connection with their political ambitions, which confuse the national and international public,” Kem Sokha wrote. 

“I would also like to affirm that I am not involved in and not responsible for the activities of Mr Sam Rainsy and his group,” he added, referring to the Candlelight Party.

The Candlelight Party is the renamed Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), which formed the CNRP with Sokha’s Human Rights Party (HRP) in 2012. Neither of the two parties, however, formally dissolved themselves as they held political posts from before the CNRP’s formation.

Former Cambodian opposition politician Sam Rainsy addresses the media in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Kimlong Meng / NurPhoto

Rainsy shoots back

Rainsy, who is banned from politics and holds numerous criminal convictions, denies involvement with this political party. And responding to Sokha’s accusations, on November 28, he claimed his erstwhile partner was forced to write the message. 

“This statement is the result of threats from Hun Sen, who dreads unity among Cambodian democrats and who is holding Kem Sokha hostage,” Rainsy wrote on his Facebook page. 

On December 1, Sokha again took to social media to deny Rainsy’s response. “No one has forced me to do anything, especially on my Facebook page,” he wrote, refuting Rainsy’s allegation that his original post was coerced. 

Sokha’s initial outburst wasn’t unexpected. Several of his purported allies, including his former chief of staff, Muth Chantha, had been briefing the media against Rainsy for weeks. Early last month, he described the return of the Candlelight Party as Rainsy’s “trick to stab his partner in the back,” according to a local media report.

The Candlelight Party has opened new chapters across the country in recent weeks, ahead of its congress that was held on November 27, the day before Sokha made his accusations. 

A new Facebook page for the party’s youth movement was created on November 30, while one for the branch in  Kampong Thom province was created on November 11. 

“Care not whether it’s CNRP or Candlelight [party]. What’s important is one objective,” read a message on that page three days later.

The most stinging criticism of Rainsy has come from Sokha’s family, who has had a tense relationship with the now-exiled politician for years. 

“It’s been an ugly divide, one that is filled with disinformation and libels from the Sam Rainsy camp against Kem Sokha, his family and former HRP officials,” stated Kem Monovithya, Sokha’s daughter and a member of the CNRP’s Permanent Committee since 2013. 

“Sam Rainsy has been a narcissistic, abusive, gaslighting, sociopathic partner to Kem Sokha,” she added in a social media post from November 29. 

Kem Monovithya. Photo: Facebook

No fan of Rainsy

Not leaving it there, the following day she tweeted: “My father #KemSokha is entitled to his opinion to call his deceitful partner to stop exploiting him & deceiving the public.” 

Monovithya is no fan of Rainsy. In 2019, after he and several other exiled CNRP politicians failed in their bid to return to Cambodia, she described it as “just another PR stunt by those who have done nothing in the last two years other than creating these PR gimmicks to stay in the news.”

Even as early as 2016, before the party’s dissolution, she criticized Rainsy as “somebody watches too much movies on their free time. If you respect the audience you at least make your lies sound believable,” she tweeted at the time. 

Monovithya’s sister, Kem Samathida, also took to social media on November 30 to lash out at Rainsy, accusing him of no longer fighting for democracy but for his “preferred dictatorship.”

“My family put up with Rainsy’s smears for decades,” she wrote, “from racist false claim[s] that we were Vietnamese to sexist attacks on my sister following my father’s arrest. Any self-proclaimed anti-racist and feminist who defends Rainsy should be known as the hypocritical fool they are.”

It isn’t clear who she meant by the “self-proclaimed” anti-racists and feminists, although this may have been a charge leveled against the likes of Mu Sochua, a CNRP vice-president who joined Rainsy in exile after the opposition party’s forced dissolution in 2017. On December 1, Monovithya appeared to also criticize Sochua in a Facebook post. 

Sochua, who is now campaigning in Europe, didn’t respond to the accusations when contacted by Asia Times. “Let us all concentrate on the long journey ahead of us. Building democracy requires focus on the goals. Each and everyone has an obligation to provide our people the justice they deserve,” she said via email on November 30. 

Rainsy, who has been uncharacteristically silent on social media since last weekend, did not respond to queries from Asia Times. 

Leading opposition figure Mu Sochua, who is living in exile. Photo: Pontus Lundahl / TT

The end of the alliance?

Other senior figures in the CNRP, especially those considered part of Rainsy’s clique, have also remained quiet over this dispute, which appears to signal the end of the CNRP alliance. 

“It is not surprising that they would say openly what they have thought privately for years. I’m only surprised it took this long for them to openly attack Sam Rainsy,” said Sophal Ear, associate dean and associate professor in the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University.

Talks on forming an alliance between Rainsy and Sokha started in at least 2007, but leaked US cables reveal that both sides distrusted the other. It took until 2012, after poor performances at that year’s local elections, for the two sides to formally agree to cooperate. 

Both Rainsy and Sokha’s cliques saw the other as power-hungry and mercurial, giving too many party positions to family members and both leaders having too much authority over their respective parties. 

Many of the same accusations leveled against Rainsy by Sokha’s daughters over the past week were the same as Sokha reportedly said in the late 2000s. 

“If the SRP comes to power … it may simply replace the CPP and transfer the power from one autocratic ruler to another,” Sokha told US officials in 2007, referring to Rainsy, according to a leaked US cable from that year. 

According to Sophal Ear, the Rainsy-Sokha split “plays right into the hands of the ruling party. [It] doesn’t even need to divide and conquer; the words coming out are doing the work for them.”

After the CNRP’s dissolution in 2017, the ruling CPP went on to win all 125 parliamentary seats at the following year’s general election. None of the two dozen or so smaller political parties were able to gain ground, even with the CNRP off the ballot ticket. 

The Candlelight Party has not yet announced whether it will compete in next June’s commune elections, which is likely to see an even greater number of small parties vie for the opposition vote. So far, six splinter parties have been formed this year by former CNRP politicians or activists. 

In August, one of Sokha’s former lawyers, Phan Chansak, a co-founder of the splinter Cambodia Reform Party, alleged that Monovithya has been collecting donations from abroad to set up her own party. This was denied by people close to Monavithya. 

Sokha’s trial for treason has been repeatedly delayed since 2017 and it is generally believed Hun Sen intends to keep his future in the balance to cajole the opposition figure. 

In return for clemency for his treason charges, it is believed Hun Sen could demand Sokha either leaves politics for good, leads a toady CNRP without Rainsy, or forms his own party, all of which would signal the end of a united opposition. 

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, with his West Point-trained son Hun Manet, who is being groomed to take over. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Government please with events

While denying any involvement in the apparent Rainsy-Sokha split, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told Radio Free Asia on December 1 that the ruling party is nonetheless pleased by the events. 

“We will certainly benefit from this, more or less. In any democratic country, each party likes to see its rivals weakened or divided,” he stated. 

And it has seemingly boosted Hun Sen’s spirits. On December 2, he said during a speech in Preah Sihanouk province that he now again sees his eldest son, the military chief Hun Manet, as his preferred replacement. 

For years, it has been rumored that Hun Sen, 69, is planning a dynastic succession. But the prime minister ceased talking about Manet’s chance in 2020 after a section of the ruling CPP made known their opposition to the plan, skeptical of Manet’s political acumen. 

“I declare today that I support my son to be my successor as prime minister, but through election, not by any other means,” Hun Sen said on Thursday. 

It is probable that Manet will resign from his military post ahead of the 2023 general election and run for a parliamentary seat. If it happens, a dynastic handover is likely after the ballot.