Twelve days into the Alliance for Freedom of Expression (AFEC) rights march from
Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, the man at the front of the group decided to head off in
his own direction.
Kem Sokha, center, surrounded by fellow marchers on the steps of the Angkor Wat causeway after announcing his re-entry into politics.
On March 11, Kem Sokha, president of the Cambodian Center for Human rights, announced
he would form his own political party to compete in the 2008 national election. He
spent the remainder of the march greeting admirers and fielding questions from the
Sokha's announcement that he would re-enter politics was not a surprise - there had
long been such speculation - but concerns are being expressed that Sokha's move will
split the opposition vote. It has also been suggested that the timing of his announcement
- on a nonpartisan rights march before the commune elections - was inappropriate.
Ou Virak, general secretary of AFEC, said he didn't know Sokha would announce the
formation of his party during the march and said it was "unfortunate" that
the announcement had taken some of the attention away from the march's purpose.
"But, in walking with us, Sokha supports the ideas of the march and shows the
people that the ideas are important and that is what matters," Virak said.
Kek Galabru, president of local rights NGO Licadho, said it was "a pity"
that Sokha had decided to form his own party. She claimed she encouraged not only
Sokha, but all the non-ruling parties, to form a strong opposition alliance.
"If you have a cake and you begin to split it you start to have smaller and
smaller pieces," she said. "This is not good. And the electoral system
since 1998 favors the big parties."
But on March 15, resting beneath an awning at Wat Preah Kinkosei, a few kilometers
north of Siem Reap town, Sokha was confident and defiant.
"It's not important if people think [the march] is politics or not," he
told the Post. "It is not whether the people support Kem Sokha, it is whether
they support the idea of the march. I call for their support for democracy, nonviolence
and freedom of expression."
Sokha said his party would not split the opposition vote because what Cambodia needed
most was a truly democratic party, with full transparency. He said Cambodians had
lost faith in their current political options and it was time for a fresh alternative.
"Now we don't have a model of a democratic party," Sokha said. "The
people do not trust any of the existing parties and they've asked me to form a party
to help them. Funcinpec supporters asked me to form a party, but also SRP and even
CPP supporters at the grassroots level."
Sokha said he had tried to work with Sam Rainsy for "more than ten years"
and had presented his plan to the SRP.
"I told SRP of my plan and I explained the model of the kind of party I wanted
and I said if they reformed I did not need to form a party - but they did not,"
he said. "The people do not trust Sam Rainsy any more. To change the parliamentary
majority system was a big mistake as it gave Hun Sen more power. Now Rainsy has long
talks with Hun Sen behind closed doors and there is no transparency."
When contacted by the Post Sam Rainsy said he did not want to comment on Sokha's
"I don't think it's very important what Kem Sokha said," Rainsy said from
the commune campaign trail. "To respond to such comments will divert attention
from more important matters. I want to win against the CPP. Why should I respond?
I will let the people decide on these matters."
Change of tune
Sokha had long denied rumors that he would re-enter politics. In an interview with
the Post in April 2006, he repeatedly stated he had no intention of entering the
political arena and said "an NGO is better than politics."
Now he has changed his tune.
"As an NGO I was only a moderator," Sokha said. "People come to me
to tell me their problems and then I tell the government. But nothing changes. So
the people are frustrated. Now I want to be able to work more directly and to use
political power to help the people."
Sokha said that in politics he would continue the work he had established with the
"I will continue to educate the people about what democracy is," he said.
"I don't want people to believe in political parties that are lying to the people
by saying they are democratic when they are not. I want to give the power back to
Sokha will stand down from his position as president of the CCHR on May 1. He said
his yet-unnamed party would immediately focus on the issues that concern the rural
community, particularly land issues and the distribution of resources.
"The leaders now talk about high things like the free-market economy, but I
know the real problems. I know about what is happening at the grass roots,"
he said. "I'm from a poor family, not a noble family like Rainsy. Hun Sen is
from a poor family too, but he is not educated and he does not educate the people.
I'm educated and I educate the people."
According to Kek Galabru, Sokha does share an intimacy with the people and is better
known at a grassroots level than Rainsy. Galabru said Sokha's arrest at the end of
2005 and his subsequent 17 days in jail galvanized his support.
"The fact that he was in jail means the people know him better," Galabru
said. "When an activist is arrested like that, the result can be positive. People
now respond to him."
Galabru denied "100 percent" she would join Sokha's party, as have a number
of other prominent activists and union members.
Rhong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers' Association, who participated
in the rights march, has said he would not join. While Mam Sonando, president of
Sambok Khmum Radio, who was in jail with Sokha, said he "strongly supported"
Sokha's move but would not become a member of the party.
"If someone asked me to choose between Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha to lead an opposition
party, I would choose Kem Sokha," Sonando said. "But I will continue to
work for my radio station, because I like to inform the citizens and help them understand
In Siem Reap, Sokha moves easily among the rights marchers, talking and laughing.
Ready to walk the final 10 km to Angkor Wat, he said he's confident of his connection
to the people and the support his party would receive.
"Tell me which leader can walk 15 days through the country and talk with the
people?" he said. "If they can do that then I would support them. But they
don't. They are very far from the people and give only press conferences and talk
for a long time on TV. No leader is as close to the people as me."