After a tumultuous year, the Sam Rainsy Party finds itself at a crossroads, but observers are divided on its future prospects in a shifting political climate.
STRIPPED of his parliamentary immunity for the second time this year, opposition leader Sam Rainsy has, once again, found himself at the centre of the debate over Cambodia’s democratic reform. But the lifting of his parliamentary immunity and the actions that led to it – the uprooting of several wooden border markers in a rice field at the Vietnamese border – have raised questions of another kind, about the relevance of Sam Rainsy and his eponymous party in a shifting political landscape.
Though the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) remains the Kingdom’s biggest proponent of Western-style democracy, some observers fear that the party, and its president, have reached the outer limits of their influence and have turned away from the grassroots campaigning that marked the SRP’s heyday in favour of politically charged but somewhat hollow political gestures.
This has been a tumultuous year for the SRP. Sam Rainsy and SRP lawmakers Mu Sochua and Ho Vann have each lost parliamentary immunity at one point or another in tense legal tussles with senior government officials.
The growth of a movement
Sam Rainsy returns to Cambodia from Europe, becoming a member of the interim Supreme National Council.
May 23, 1993
Sam Rainsy is elected as a Funcinpec lawmaker for Siem Reap in UN-backed polls that see a stunning royalist victory.
Sam Rainsy is appointed minister for economics and finance in the CPP-Funcinpec coalition government.
October 20, 1994
Sam Rainsy is expelled from the cabinet following a major reshuffle.
May 13, 1995
Sam Rainsy is expelled from both Funcinpec and the National Assembly, and forms the Khmer Nation Party (KNP) later in the year.
March 30, 1997
Assassins throw grenades into a KNP rally outside the National Assembly in Phnom Penh, killing more than 16 and injuring scores of others. FBI investigators allege government involvement in the attack.
July 26, 1998
The KNP – now renamed the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) – performs well in the national elections, gaining 15 seats and winning 14.3 percent of the vote.
July 27, 2003
The SRP wins 24 National Assembly seats, or 21.9 percent of the vote, in national elections.
February 3, 2005
Sam Rainsy goes into self-exile after being accused of defamation and losing his parliamentary immunity at the hands of the National Assembly, along with fellow SRP lawmakers Chea Poch and Cheam Channy. Cheam Channy is arrested in February and tried in August 2005 for creating an illegal armed force. He is sentenced to seven years in prison, but is granted a royal pardon in February 2006.
December 22, 2005
Phnom Penh Municipal Court tries Sam Rainsy in absentia for defamation and sentences him to 18 months in prison and orders him to pay US$14,000 in fines and compensation.
February 5, 2006
Sam Rainsy receives a royal pardon at Prime Minister Hun Sen’s request, and returns to the country on February 10.
July 27, 2008
The SRP again wins 21.9 percent of the popular vote, but increases its share of National Assembly seats to 26.
February 26, 2009
The National Assembly votes to suspend Sam Rainsy’s immunity to force him to pay a fine levied against him by the National Election Committee. His immunity is restored on March 10.
June 22, 2009
The National Assembly votes to suspend the immunity of SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua after she filed a lawsuit accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen of defamation. Lawmaker Ho Vann is also stripped of his immunity for allegedly belittling the educational credentials of senior military officers.
November 16, 2009
Parliament again lifts Rainsy’s immunity, following an incident in which he uprooted wooden markers at the border with Vietnam.
Despite the international media coverage of its recent theatrics, and attention in the chambers of the US congress and the European parliament in Brussels, it is unclear whether the opposition’s strategies have maximised its chances of leveraging demographic changes into long-term political gains.
Some observers say the party has declined since its peak in the mid-2000s, a trend illustrated by its failure to capture the tens of thousands of Funcinpec voters who withdrew their support from the party after the royalist split in 2006.
“All those votes should have gone to the SRP, and they didn’t,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. He said the SRP’s lack of a concrete policy platform causes its political spats with the government to become quickly personalised and drags the party into unwinnable battles with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). “There’s no proper analysis or real policy,” he added. “If you’re going to oppose something, are you in a position to offer anything that’s different?”
If it was a one-man show, the show would have stopped a long time ago, given all the problems we've been facing.
Another observer, who declined to be named, said that despite having won the SRP international attention, the recent strategy of waging legal battles with government officials had “steered the party way off message”.
“They talk about party leaders being persecuted on the basis of esoteric rights that many Cambodian people have very little ownership of. They’ve adapted to appeal to outside constituencies rather than Cambodian voters,” he said, describing the loss of the Funcinpec vote as a “huge missed opportunity”.
Sorpong Peou, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, said that as the country’s main opposition leader, Sam Rainsy must maintain a degree of assertiveness, but that appeals to distant international organisations have achieved little for the party.
“At the end of the day, the opposition is at the mercy of the CPP, which is willing to allow a degree of opposition in order to legitimise its domination and uses this type of legitimacy to gain international support,” she said. “In this sense, the opposition’s appeals have little real impact on domestic politics.”
The ‘donors’ darling’
Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia from France in 1992, he was a rising star in the royalist political firmament. A founding member of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s Funcinpec party in 1981, Rainsy had advanced through the ranks to become an elected parliamentarian during Funcinpec’s stunning win in the UN-backed elections of May 1993 and was appointed minister of finance in the CPP-Funcinpec coalition government in July.
But his ascent was short lived, and the fall that followed set the tone for a political career marked by bitter clashes with the government.
In October 1994 – just over a year after his appointment – Sam Rainsy was dismissed from his post in a major cabinet reshuffle, following his clear criticism of the corruption and nepotism that plagued the coalition. The following May, he was dumped from the party altogether and lost his National Assembly seat a month later.
At the time of its founding in 1995, the Khmer Nation Party (KNP) – the SRP’s predecessor – was a new feature on the Cambodian political landscape. Unlike the CPP – which secured its support through a patronage system established in the 1980s – and Funcinpec, which traded heavily on the prestige of the monarchy, Sam Rainsy’s new party put liberal democratic principles front and centre. At the time, Sam Rainsy said his expulsion from Funcinpec would give him the opportunity “to mobilise millions of people” sharing the same ideals.
In spite of the SRP’s idealistic bent, however, the party’s constituency remains overwhelmingly urban: In 2008, it won six of its 26 seats in Phnom Penh and five in Kampong Cham, as well as three each in heavily populated Kandal and Prey Veng provinces, both close to the capital. In 12 of Cambodia’s 24 provinces and municipalities – among them the most remote and least populated – the party did not score a single seat.
Caroline Hughes, an associate professor of governance studies at Murdoch University in Perth, said the SRP was not to blame for its difficulties in rural areas, in large part because of political intimidation by the CPP and the presence of its well-oiled machinery of patronage. Sam Rainsy – a “donors’ darling” in the early 1990s – has gradually become a more “marginal” figure as a result of waning international support, a rift with the Cambodian union movement and a concerted campaign of violence and intimidation that reached its apotheosis in a bloody grenade attack on a KNP protest in March 1997, she said. “Sam Rainsy did attempt to organise his supporters around a whole range of more concrete issues, but he was consistently blocked,” she said. “He organised a demonstration against corruption, and a grenade was thrown at it. He organised strikes in pursuit of a minimum-wage raise and was criticised by international organisations who said he shouldn’t interfere with unions.”
She added: “I don’t think we can blame the SRP for the weakness of the Cambodian political opposition when the government has worked consistently to reduce the political space for any kind of organised activism on any issue.”
A one-man show?
Others, however, said the party’s apparent difficulties stem from the erosion of its own internal democratic processes under the constant threat of defections and government intimidation.
The SRP organisation, Ou Virak said, is “like a scared child – the more things happen to them, the more they start to pull back. They refrain from meeting people and they refrain from opening up because of bad experiences”.
“There are some good people in the party that I know that cannot move up in the ranks,” he said. “There are some very good people who were left out.”
Ken Virak was a member of the SRP’s Steering Committee who left to form his own party – the People’s Power Party – in 2007, after becoming disillusioned with the SRP’s internal workings. He said the party had given up its role as a democratic opposition party “step by step”, and that the Steering Committee – nominally in charge of party decision-making – no longer had any real power.
“There is no democracy inside the party. Most of the decisions are made only by a minority of members who are powerful in the party and associated with Sam Rainsy,” he said.
Political decisions, originally made by a two-thirds majority vote of the Steering Committee, were watered down to a simple 50-percent-plus-one majority system and then to a system where the party president can in effect make every decision himself.
“I found that before every election, members of the party always broke away because of the political decision-making and partisanship,” he said.
Ou Virak said major decisions are now made by the party’s eight-member Permanent Committee, over which Sam Rainsy has final veto power.
Ken Virak still has faith in the opposition – refusing to run his new party in any elections in order not to cannibalise opposition votes – but said that all opposition groups, including the Human Rights Party and NRP, must unite if they want to have any chance at eating into the CPP’s majority in the 2013 polls.
Born in Phnom Penh in 1949, Sam Rainsy grew up at a time of change and regeneration. His father, Sam Sary, was a key member of Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum government, but fell victim to the Prince’s security police after he was implicated in the so-called Bangkok Plot, an attempt to topple the government with the support of Thailand’s right-wing Marshal Sarit Thanarat. Sam Sary disappeared in 1962 and was presumed killed, possibly by the government. Shortly afterwards, Sam Rainsy’s mother, In Em, took the remaining family members to live in France, where he remained for the next three decades.
In a recent interview with the Post, Sam Rainsy described his father’s death as a “traumatising” experience, but said that Sam Sary’s political views permeated the family and set the trajectory of his own political development.
Certain pivotal events in Europe – notably, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 – were daily topics of conversation in the Sam household and went some way to forming the ideals that would grow into the SRP’s own brand of nationalism.
“When it came to Southeast Asia, my father was in favour of a strict neutrality – that Cambodia should not move closer to the communist world,” he said. “This has marked my background and my conviction that communism is oppressive – that freedom is essential and that we have to fight for [it],”
Sam Rainsy said that despite having been founded largely on his initiative in 1995, the KNP – renamed the SRP in 1998 because of legal disputes over the KNP name – had grown into an “organisation of its own”, linking Cambodia with Khmer communities abroad. He also downplayed his role as the party’s figurehead, referring to it as an “anachronistic” notion.
“If it was a one-man show, the show would have stopped a long time ago, given all the problems that we’ve been facing,” he said.
Sam Rainsy said the SRP was the only party in Cambodia that holds organised elections from the grassroots, a system that is “just the opposite” of the CPP’s centrally controlled networks.
“They appoint their cadres – their apparatchiks – at the grassroots, but we are the only party that has organised elections,” he said.
Kimsour Phirith, a member of the SRP’s Permanent Committee, acknowledged that “internal disputes and misunderstandings”, as well as “competition at the leadership level”, had hurt the party at recent elections, but said the party is well aware of the problem and has worked to resolve it.
Similarly, the “loss” of the former Funcinpec vote was largely “due to intimidation and vote-buying in non-transparent elections”, Sam Rainsy said – a claim the opposition has made consistently since the July 2008 poll. “All of the over 13,000 powerful village chiefs are appointed by the ruling CPP, which is a heavily oppressive factor in a rural country like Cambodia. In the face of such pressure, virtually all Funcinpec leaders have sold out to the CPP,” he said.
When asked how the party might hope to erode the CPP’s entrenched network of patronage and make headway in rural areas, Sam Rainsy said current and future demographic changes were swinging the SRP’s way, a factor reflected in the party’s recent formation of a youth congress.
“In a typical family, you have the grandfather, who votes for Funcinpec; you have the father, who votes for the CPP; and you have the children, who when they reach voting age will vote for the SRP,” he said. “It will take less time than one might imagine now, because of the progress of technology, information, communication and education. History is accelerating.”
Sam Rainsy said that unlike CPP support – “bought” with party patronage benefits – each SRP ballot was a “politically conscious vote”, bringing with it a host of risks.
“The progressive concept of social justice is eroding the leniency towards the regressive patronage system. The younger generations will be the spearhead for this democratic trend moving Cambodia out of the Middle Ages,” he said.
Koul Panha, executive director of election monitor Comfrel, said Sam Rainsy retains a lot of political capital for taking such a principled stance against corruption in the 1990s and maintaining it consistently over the years since, but that fresh challenges are on the horizon.
“I think he still has that credibility. He resigned from a key position in government and showed he is that kind of politician,” he said. “The problem is how to communicate that credibility to the people.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG AND SAM RITH