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

In an opinion piece published this week, analysts Romdoul Chetra and Meng Seavmey posed an interesting question: Who is more hurt by the apparent split of Cambodia’s opposition leaders, Kem Sokha or Sam Rainsy? 

At first glance, it would appear to be Rainsy. He cannot re-enter Cambodia, as his failed 2019 bid to do so showed. He has put off some supporters in recent years by his erratic comments, not least those against King Norodom Sihamoni.

Seng Sary, a political analyst, has suggested that Sokha might now be trying to purge the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) of Rainsy and his faction, perhaps a prerequisite for gaining clemency from Prime Minister Hun Sen over his treason charge, which Sokha picked up when arrested in September 2017, just before the forced dissolution of his and Rainsy’s opposition CNRP.

Indeed, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that Hun Sen could allow Sokha and the CNRP to return legally to politics if Rainsy were kept out of the picture. With Rainsy barred from entering the country, Sokha would be the dominant opposition figure when campaigning within Cambodia ahead of the 2022 local elections and the 2023 general election.  

However, Rainsy may not be the main loser. For starters, he has come off better from Sokha’s latest comments. Their split stems from the resumption of activities by the Candlelight Party, the old Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) that “merged” with Sokha’s Human Rights Party in 2012 to form the CNRP. (Only, they never merged and both parties continued after the CNRP’s formation.)

Throughout November, the Candlelight Party opened new branches and prepared for its special congress, held on November 27. Also throughout November, Sokha’s faction cried foul about the Candlelight Party’s resumption of activities.

Sokha’s former chief of staff, Muth Chantha, described its return as Rainsy’s “trick to stab his partner in the back,” according to a local media report in late October.

The exiled Rainsy, of course, has denied involvement in the party since that could lead to its dissolution. But really? No one actually believes Rainsy isn’t behind it, not his supporters and not Sokha. 

Kem Sokha during the Commune Election Campaign in Phnom Penh on May 20, 2017. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Indeed, on November 28, the day after that congress, Sokha took to Facebook to lash out at his erstwhile ally. “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,” wrote Kem Sokha, adding that he and Rainsy are no longer “one person.”

Rainsy quickly shot back: “This statement is the result of threats from Hun Sen who dreads unity among Cambodian democrats and who is holding Kem Sokha hostage.” But, days later, Sokha again took to Facebook to deny this.

“No one has forced me to do anything, especially on my Facebook page,” he wrote on December 1.

Sokha’s daughters and allies also launched stinging rebukes of Rainsy. Kem Samathida called Rainsy a “sexist” and “racist.” Kem Monovithya, a key node in Sokha’s network, described Rainsy as “a narcissistic, abusive, gaslighting, sociopathic partner” to her father.

There’s a theory that Rainsy’s faction was caught off-guard. That’s probably the case, but Sokha hurt himself a great deal by his comments, which were more extreme than what was needed to convey his frustration. He could have chided Rainsy publicly without setting off events that now point to the CNRP’s last stage of collapse.

Indeed, it looked bad that Sokha, who has not publicly spoken about politics since his arrest in 2017, made his first foray to effectively announce the end of a partnership that reshaped oppositional politics over the past decade. Neither did it look good that Sokha presumably allowed his allies to launch stinging rebukes of Rainsy, which appeared petty and personal.

Making matters worse, they also made insinuations against the more respectable and perceived as neutral party grandees, such as Mu Sochua. 

One hears that many opposition supporters actually now have a good deal of sympathy for Rainsy – or, at least, don’t blame him directly for the CNRP’s apparent split. Sokha’s people have been trying to backtrack and make clear that it was Rainsy, not them, who in effect broke the CNRP pact, but that message doesn’t appear to have convinced supporters.

Indeed, despite Rainsy taking on the “acting president” role of the CNRP in 2018 at a congress in the US (which many in Sokha’s faction criticized), Sokha remains the nominal president of the party and his allies control the key positions within the country. As such, his words are seen as more closely reflecting the CNRP itself. 

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

If we imagine that Rainsy and Sokha were to split formally, even going on to become unofficial “leaders” of separate parties, Sokha could be in the weaker position. He was never as good on the international stage. His ties in Brussels, Tokyo and Washington are much weaker than Rainsy’s, who has had the past six years in exile to develop his ties abroad.

(In fact, their factional split, which has existed ever since the party was created, has divided further since dissolution in 2017 as Sokha’s faction largely remained within Cambodia and Rainsy’s faction in exile.)

Moreover, Rainsy’s ability to raise funds from the Cambodian diaspora abroad may also be somewhat weaker. One factor in this story that hasn’t yet revealed itself fully is the question of donations.

Presumably, the Candlelight Party needs to raise funds abroad, meaning some former CNRP donors will need to switch allegiance – or, at least, divide their donations between both parties. Either way, Sokha’s faction probably foresees less funding for itself. 

Who are Sokha’s main stalwarts? His daughters, yes, and a good chunk of the activist base, which has been harassed and jailed since 2017. Let’s recall that Monovithya, his daughter, was accused earlier this year of collecting donations to create her own party.

But who would Rainsy presumably have on his side? Far more influential and experienced figures, probably. Perhaps Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang.

Look at who’s returned so far to the Candlelight Party fold. Thach Setha, now the party’s first vice president, is a long-time political figure who co-founded the Khmer Nation Party, Rainsy’s first party in 1995. In early November, it also welcomed back former SRP senator Hong Sok Hour, who was released from prison in 2017 after years behind bars for “incitement”. 

In the hypothetical situation where the Candlelight Party and a party of Sokha’s faction compete in the upcoming elections, Rainsy would probably still carry the cities and urban areas. He’s the popular one among the middle-classes who want political change. His clique is also tied to what remains of the trade union movement.

Sokha, by comparison, is far better in rural areas, where his “man-of-the-soil” personality is popular. But that would leave Sokha’s faction to compete largely for the rural vote, where it would be up against the full force of the ruling party. 

Yet, amid all of this, what if this tirade shows we are now approaching the end of Rainsy and Sokha’s direct participation in politics? Is it hard to imagine Rainsy and Sokha taking on the mantle of the “spiritual leaders” of two separate opposition parties in which they do not directly participate?

That is what Rainsy is now accused of doing, after all. And, indeed, once their latest spat is forgotten about, could they come together to form another electoral alliance, like the one they formed in 2009, rather than a united party?