As a group of longtime opposition party activists from across North America gathered for its first national convention at the ballroom of the Marriott hotel in Long Beach, California, on Saturday, tensions were running unusually high.
There had been threats of protests, and leaders of the Cambodia National Rescue Party North America (CNRP-NA), as the group calls itself, had contacted the police in advance to ensure that nothing went awry.
But the would-be demonstrators they feared weren’t ruling Cambodian People’s Party supporters living in the area. They were disgruntled members of the same party.
Discord between CNRP supporters of different stripes has been simmering below the surface in the US and Canada ever since the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party (HRP) merged well ahead of last July’s election.
But despite the tension, the fledgling marriage held fast as supporters banded together to finance the new party’s election campaign and support the wave of post-poll protests trying to bring down Prime Minister Hun Sen that followed.
In recent months, however, as the political situation has cooled, those tensions have come to a head, with supporters splitting largely along former party lines. The leaders of the CNRP-NA are aligned with the SRP, but numerous local chapters, including Long Beach, have stronger links with the HRP.
The split has threatened to throw the opposition’s key funding base into disarray.
“From the start, the SRP has not wanted to join us,” said Titthana Tith, president of CNRP Long Beach and a longtime Kem Sokha supporter. “They say they are the biggest party and they don’t want anybody [else] to come. They want to be on top of everything, all of the US, all of North America.”
According to Tith, the CNRP-NA (formerly known as the SRP-NA, or Sam Rainsy Party-North America) has never truly welcomed the union with Sokha’s smaller Human Rights Party.
“We shut our mouth for the past two years,” Tith said. “We didn’t want to have any infighting, because we can’t topple the dictatorship with infighting. So we shut our mouth and did our job here in Long Beach.
“But suddenly [CNRP] NA has a problem in the last year, they want to control us and take money from us.… So we asked the CNRP to eliminate CNRP-NA, as they are [trying] to create a party within a party.”
Long Beach is home to the biggest Cambodian diaspora community in the United States. A Cambodian-American source close to the matter – who asked for anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the dispute – told the Post that the North American split is merely a “mirror” of what lies below the surface of the party as a whole, due to a deficit of trust.
CNRP Long Beach, like many city or state-level fundraising chapters in the US, opposes CNRP-NA’s belief that it should be the official continent-wide representative of the Cambodian opposition. In February, at least 15 local CNRP chapters across the US wrote to Rainsy and Sokha denouncing CNRP-NA.
Members of CNRP Long Beach were only talked out of protesting at the Marriott event after a conference call with opposition leader Sam Rainsy days before. Rainsy was meant to fly in and appear at the convention in person, but spoke via Skype instead, a move some in the US attributed to the controversy.
In recent months, the Phnom Penh leadership has scrambled to placate its diverse range of backers with a series of directives and statements aimed at decentralising overseas networks – statements that have been interpreted in different ways.
According to Tith, a new group called CNRP USA, which seeks to bring together opposition groups in 30 states, has now been formed. Tith claimed members came from “both sides” of the union.
But leaders of CNRP-NA, which raised more than $1 million in 2013 and 2014 for the party, say that they are “the backbone of the party”.
“[For] 18 years, we’ve done a lot of work, political, financial to support the party,” said Chea Kim Ly, the group’s president.
Because of this, they say they deserve a degree of autonomy from the CNRP in Phnom Penh.
They refute allegations that they have turned up their noses at working with former HRP backers and instead say they welcome anyone to collaborate with them.
However, CNRP-NA members also argue that funds donated by North American supporters at all levels should be sent directly to the CNRP treasury in Phnom Penh, with a bank transfer receipt sent to CNRP-NA to ensure transparency and accountability.
The anonymous Cambodian-American source, a former HRP fundraiser who says he quit because of a lack of transparency, told the Post that smaller groups aligned with Kem Sokha have been funnelling money to him directly and that many are questioning where those funds are really going.
While Kim Ly declined to name names and did not make the same allegations, he agreed that these small groups were mostly aligned with the HRP.
“When any group does whatever they want, you open up a lot of room for opportunists and it is no good for the party,” he said. “No institutions or party can run like this, it should [have] an organisational structure.”
But it appears Rainsy and Sokha disagree with that notion. In a September 29 directive, they said the situation with overseas supporters was “complicated” and that internal regulations were being ignored.
“So, during this transitional period, the CNRP would like to instruct all compatriots who are members and supporters overseas that you can create a supporting group based on your own will and each group can contact the central headquarters of the CNRP directly,” the directive said.
This angered some supporters aligned with Rainsy, who accused the CNRP of being captured by the interests of Sokha’s faction.
“Once a leader (Kem Sokha with his group) puts self interest beyond national interest, he will bring down the entire organization,” a supporter named Ratha Touch from Lowell, Massachusetts, posted on Facebook. “After 18 years with Sam Rainsy, it is the first time that I realize how incompetent he is. How can a huge organization with 25 elected MPs and thousand members be controlled/hijacked by an incompetent party with only 3 elected MPs?”
CNRP-NA is also perplexed by rumours that the central leadership is trying to shut them down on the orders of Sokha.
On September 24, CNRP information head Meach Sovannara, a former HRP official, blasted the CNRP-NA on Khmer Post Radio, an online station that he runs.
“Some CNRP supporters who want to hold a convention are illegal and violating internal regulations for overseas [groups],” he said, adding that although the group had announced Rainsy was attending, there had been no approval from the party’s permanent committee.
On September 30, the CNRP-NA released a statement condemning Sovannara’s “political assault”.
“The timing of the assault on the CNRP-NA and its leaders is highly questionable, politically motivated, irresponsible and extremely divisive. Remarks made during the interview [were] not factual, inappropriate and [made] without knowledge or consent of the leadership,” the group said.
Despite Sovannara’s remarks, on Saturday, in the Marriot’s ballroom, Rainsy greeted his longtime CNRP-NA supporters via Skype to kick off their convention.
“Though I’m so far, thousands of kilometres away, I meet you all who I used to work together with … I remember all your devotion and efforts,” he reassured them, before addressing the elephant in the room.
“I know that overseas people have not worked in the same way as the people in Cambodia, as one party,” Rainsy said.
“The Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party have merged together, so we have worked as one, we have no brawling. We are recognised as one party. So I would like to appeal to all CNRP here [in North America] to unite as one like in Cambodia. Here, you have no unity like in Cambodia.
“I have received a lot of information that this group [overseas] is not good or another group is not good ... I cannot accept only one group and deny another group,” he said.
Rainsy added that “one day” an official overseas entity would be created to represent the party.
CNRP-NA, however, still appears to believe that it is the legitimate representative of the party in North America.
The convention adopted “recommendations” that they be able to appoint two representatives on the party’s steering committee in Phnom Penh and have the right to ignore directives from the central leadership.
Members also want to set up a joint convention across three continents.
It’s clear they also feel spurned.
“[The CNRP-NA] recommends that CNRP-PP must recognise and respect CNRP-NA leadership, which has done its best to reach out to the CNRP leadership in Phnom Penh, but received no proper reply, no sense of recognition, nor appreciation regardless of our quality human resources with years of service and commitment,” the group said.
When reached by email yesterday, Rainsy said there was “no unique official representative” of the CNRP in North America.
He also appeared to admit that small groups of supporters were funnelling donations directly to Sokha rather than sending funds to the CNRP treasury.
“In free and democratic countries such as the USA and Canada people can do whatever they want as long as they are not engaged in illegal activities,” he said. “This applies all the more to volunteers who spend their own money the way they want. Any regulations are difficult to implement.”
But Rainsy rejected the idea that splits along SRP/HRP lines in the US were reflective of wider party divisions, citing his and Sokha’s “maturity in leading the CNRP” as a united force.
“At the same time, we have noticed that, among some CNRP supporters abroad, there are a lot of ego problems. Hence the decentralisation policy we have adopted to deal with our different overseas support groups.”
Sokha hung up on a Post reporter yesterday when asked to address these issues.
Party spokesman Yim Sovann characterised issues among North American supporters as minor and said any antagonism was based on “personal opinions”.
“Of course there are some little differences, but everybody respects the leaders.”