In June 1998, during the lead-up to contentious national elections, the body of Funcinpec activist Thong Sophal was found in a dry canal bed in Kandal province.
In Cambodian politics, if this has never happened before, it could be a sign of desperation, or the stakes are higher,” he added. “In that sense, it could be seen as a maturing of Cambodian politics. And in that case, welcome to the gutter.
His fingers and left ear were missing, and the flesh on his legs had been flayed off, leaving only bone, according to numerous international media and NGO reports.
Sophal appeared to have ultimately died from at least one heavy blow to the head. Police at the time ruled the death – the fourth royalist killings so far that month – a suicide.
Fifteen years later, as Cambodia enters a new election cycle, there have been no reports of political killings, much less torture on the level of that was undergone by Thong Sophal. However, with a whirlwind of controversies besetting the leadership of the newly formed Cambodia National Rescue Party, it’s beginning to look like Cambodian politics have found another, more sophisticated method of execution – character assassination.
“I think that the resort[ing] to violence has backfired, and undermined the credibility of the ruling party, and there has been a lot of pressure from inside and outside to end this kind of violence,” political analyst Lao Mong Hay said. “And now we come to a stage of arousing public disagreements … against the opposition, and also legal action.”
In recent days, CNRP acting president Kem Sokha has found himself at the centre of not one, but two distinct controversies, both of which have erupted into court cases. In the first, the former Human Rights Party head was accused of referring to the events that took place at infamous Khmer Rouge torture centre S-21 as a Vietnamese fabrication.
Just days later, a woman purporting to be Sokha’s estranged mistress showed up at a CNRP rally demanding money for child support for what she said were the couple’s two adopted children. In the following days, the woman claimed that her mother had been beaten by Sokha’s bodyguards and filed a lawsuit against him at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
The suit roughly coincided with one filed by S-21 survivor Chum Mey, who has argued that Sokha’s S-21 denial amounts to defamation.
“Look at Sam Rainsy’s case. He has committed a crime, and the court has tried him, and sentenced him to prison, and he fled the country. And [the CPP] said we had nothing to do with the judiciary, it is independent,” said Mong Hay, noting that legal proceedings have helped lend an air of legitimacy to past attacks on politicians.
“Of course, they are not independent. Our judges, most of them, are members of the ruling party.” he added. “Look at the debates on the TV – there are some jurists who are working with the government who are trying to justify this kind of action against Kem Sokha. It seems that the whole system is working in the same direction.”
In both cases, Sokha has gone into denial mode, first maintaining that the government, which had released the tapes of his statements about S-21, had doctored the audio, and then denying having ever met the woman claiming to be his mistress.
In the absence of proof from either side, there is no more hard evidence suggesting the ruling party has concocted the scandals than there is tying them to the killing of Thong Sophal in 1998.
The CPP, meanwhile, has been having a media field day with Sokha’s predicament, with Prime Minister Hun Sen taunting Sokha through the press, saying if he “were really strong, [he] would have filed a complaint against that woman to the court”.
Hun Sen has also lambasted acting Sam Rainsy Party president Kong Korm in recent days after the government leaked recordings of him apparently claiming that the 1970 Lon Nol coup against then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk had been orchestrated by the prince himself.
The premier even went so far as to call out an unnamed opposition member for allegedly attempting to pay a 15-year-old girl for sex, then threatened to leak proof of the improprieties in the event of a denial.
Far from the killings, intimidation and widespread reports of fraud and vote-buying of elections past, the tenor of this election cycle “sounds a bit more like contemporary Italian politics,” said Justin Di Lollo, a former political advisor to Australian ministers and parliamentarians.
“There is a political ploy of asking a politician to respond to a baseless rumour – and of course responding to a baseless rumour gives credence to the possibility of the rumour,” said Di Lollo, now the managing director of Hawker Britton, a prominent Australian public affairs consultancy.
“In Cambodian politics, if this has never happened before, it could be a sign of desperation, or the stakes are higher,” he added. “In that sense, it could be seen as a maturing of Cambodian politics. And in that case, welcome to the gutter.”
According to Di Lollo, a forceful smear campaign full of damning accusations can be indicative of larger political trends; though one in which there is a marked lack of evidence on either side can offer as many questions as answers.
“If this is a decision that has been made – in other words, if these things aren’t real and are a political tactic – then it is indicative that the party is no longer confident in its ability to win by other means,” he said.
However, he noted, it is important to always keep in mind that such accusations could just as easily be true, or even what he described as a “double-cross”.
“Could it be that the opposition has created a situation where somebody has come forward to say something about the opposition, in order that the opposition can create the kind of story that you’re looking to write – that the government is looking to use gutter tactics?” Di Lollo asked.
Such uncertainties could simply be the domain of fledgling democracies, he added, noting that in mature democracies, strong institutions deter unsubstantiated claims, but the lack thereof “increases the possibility for scurrilous behaviour”.
Such “scurrilous behaviour” has the possibility to distract from what’s really at issue, said Koul Panha, head of election watchdog COMFREL.
“These personal attacks, personal scandals, controversy – they try to spend a lot of time to talk about personal characters of the leadership, and use bad behaviour . . . This is a little bit more aggressive than before,” Panha said.
Referring to allegations of infidelity and corruption levelled against Prince Norodom Ranariddh in elections past, Panha said that accusations have made it hard for politicians outside of the ruling party to focus on issues.
“Because the voters, they are very emotional with the leadership,” he said. “There were a lot of allegations about Prince Ranariddh. It made it difficult for him to explain something, because the media is controlled by the ruling party, so they can make the information what they want.”
“I found that it’s not so much of a benefit,” he added. “There’s not that rationality. They try to work more emotionally.”
As for whether such emotional distractions will work, Mong Hay, the political analyst, is not so sure.
“It seems that public opinion is more and more aware of what’s going on,” he said, pointing to mounting protests over land grabs whose spread reaches far beyond the communities directly involved.
What’s more, he said, personal attacks in Cambodian politics have backfired in the past.
“We are not so sure whether such extramarital affairs and all that will be condoned or not by the public, but in our history, when people take action against persons who are believed to be honest and working for the people, that kind of action has . . . won sympathy for the victim,” he said.
“You can start with Jesus. The Romans killed him, but later on, he became a hero.”