For Kem Sokha, it’s a familiar situation.
With Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy having entered his third stint of self-imposed exile in Europe to avoid charges widely seen as politically motivated, the second-in-command has assumed the acting leadership.
However, this time Sokha finds himself in a bit of a tricky spot – taking over leadership of party operations and representing it in negotiations at a time of heightened tensions, while taking care not to sideline Rainsy, a scenario that could play right into the hands of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In a discursive interview at his residence on the weekend, Sokha stopped short of explicitly saying that Rainsy should return, but acknowledged that “supporters would feel invigorated if their leaders took risks”.
“It’s something I’ve told supporters myself, if we don’t take risks there will be no change,” he continued, adding that the move also made sense in practical terms. “It is common sense that it’s better to have more people than to be by yourself.”
Once again, Sokha is left to lead the day-to-day grunt work of managing the party on the domestic front and has become the acting head of the opposition’s parliamentary minority group.
“That is why I had a meeting with Sar Kheng, because he’s supposed to meet with the minority leader,” he said, referring to a cross-party meeting on December 10.
Sokha said he had pushed Kheng on four points at their meeting, including reviewing the draft trade union law, and releasing the 14 CNRP prisoners held over anti-government protests in 2014, a matter he said was still in the government’s hands.
In negotiations, however, Sokha said he prefers “an official relationship”, unlike Rainsy’s more personal style, embodied by his dinner-table selfie with Hun Sen.
But Sokha – whose Human Rights Party merged with the Sam Rainsy Party in 2012 to create the CNRP – maintained that he’s in constant communication with his party boss, and that their relationship is solid.
“This is not the first time [Rainsy has been abroad] . . . It was just me here alone right immediately after the CNRP was created for a year, he was only here for one week before the election,” he said.
“Right now, I’m making sure all the mechanisms of the CNRP are working so it’s not just a one-man party.”
Sokha also said he was on guard against Hun Sen’s long-used divide-and-conquer strategy, and denied that the premier had made personal entreaties to him to take over the reins.
“I know these people really well, for over 30 years, definitely that’s their way of doing things. Even now they are trying to find different ways of talking to different people within the CNRP who would be more receptive to their sweet talk,” he said, while declining to talk specifics.
Sokha said he knew the stakes had been raised when his home was besieged by a stone-throwing mob on October 26. The night before, Hun Sen, speaking from France, had foreshadowed a pro-government rally at the National Assembly that would ultimately see Sokha removed as the parliament’s first vice president.
“They know verbal threats alone will not discourage me from doing anything. They have also imprisoned me, and they know that did not change anything; I still came back strong.”
But rather than simply surviving, Sokha said, in order to move forward, the party must strengthen its structure at the local level and focus on policy if it wants to capitalise on its surprise surge at the 2013 election, where it claimed 55 of the 123 National Assembly seats.
The party, Sokha insisted, is shifting away from political attacks and personal insults, to creating policies developed by 10 new working groups aided by experts.
He added that it was unfair to say the party had largely focused on anti-Vietnamese sentiment, maintaining that “Since 2012, I have been talking policy ideas centring around five human rights – the right to education, housing, food, heath care and jobs.”
Asked whether he still stood by perhaps his most infamous comments on Vietnam – when he suggested a Vietnamese conspiracy was behind the deadly 2010 Koh Pich stampede – he was evasive, saying “many issues” need “independent investigation”.
At the same time, Sokha also has to grapple with the tension of campaigning for election while avoiding the backlash that comes from threatening the positions of those at the top, a strategy political analyst Ou Virak said had merit.
“Kem Sokha needs to tread the water carefully,” he said. “He needs to get the CPP to understand that [the CNRP] are not going to get into bed, that they’re going to play a constructive opposition role, which means they’re going to challenge the ruling party on policy rather than personal attacks and linking the CPP, and particularly Hun Sen, to Vietnam.”
Even so, Sokha said his party wasn’t about to start pretending like it isn’t out to win the next election.
“We need to talk more about [leadership change] so they can get used to it; not personal insults but constructive criticisms . . . We will continue to say that we will win and that we will change, but we explain to the CPP that it’s normal and there’s nothing to fear.”