As a “terrorist” group this week took its final step towards being accepted into the political mainstream, its hodgepodge of prospective members – from longtime supporters to disengaged opposition politicians – embraced their emergence from the shadows.
Twenty-one-year-old Khmer Krom monk Thach Ny has been a supporter of the US-based Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM) and its self-exiled Cambodian leader Sourn Serey Ratha for years.
“Whatever he posted on Facebook or on his website, I watched and read carefully to follow the movement,” he said.
In his posts “he described how he fled the country and the government who accused him of being a traitor … I respected his efforts to advocate for the nation from overseas.”
Ny, however, has long been forced to keep his admiration for the KPPM – publicly branded by Prime Minister Hun Sen as a terrorist organisation – a closely guarded secret.
“I knew they were not legal, so I didn’t tell anyone,” he explained.
But now everything has changed, as the government looks set to bring the “terrorists” into the fold.
Just days ago, Serey Ratha received a royal pardon excusing him of widely decried convictions in absentia – including treason and obstructing electoral procedures – clearing the way for the group’s political offshoot, the Khmer Power Party (KPP), to officially register.
The final registration paperwork was filed on Tuesday.
Ny, who formerly supported the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said he can now openly switch his political allegiance to the KPP.
“I was just a normal supporter, but when I saw [CNRP president] Sam Rainsy has no strong political will, I stopped caring about this party,” he said.
And as tensions with Vietnam rise, Ny said he was proud to support a party that stands firmly against “communist rule”.
Like Ny, many KPP supporters the Post spoke to this week said they had formerly backed the CNRP.
Some cited disappointment over the opposition’s “culture of dialogue” with the ruling party and alleged splits within the CNRP as reasons for their disengagement.
Observers have long speculated that this was the ruling party’s intention.
Lorn Sorn, a former CNRP councillor in Takeo province’s Tram Kak district, resigned from the party in January in favour of Serey Ratha’s bid to form a party.
“You can see at the national level, the party leaders say they are one, but the facts show at a local level that there is nepotism and corruption.
“I can’t struggle anymore with that party,” he said, referring to the CNRP.
Sorn, who now heads a working group for the KPP, claimed that thousands of people in his district had expressed their support for the proposed party, whose pledges include awarding land to the landless, and ridding the voter list of Vietnamese.
Former journalist Ros Sokhet, who claims to have worked as a “media consultant” for the CNRP, said he too had made the switch.
“I stopped supporting the CNRP because Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha are not brave leaders to oppose the government,” he said.
“We can’t be under the armpits of Prime Minister Hun Sen like Sam Rainsy is nowadays.”
Sokhet said he used to communicate secretly with Serey Ratha, and would buy new SIM cards for calls to other KPPM supporters out of “safety concerns”.
But now he is relieved to be able to publicly throw his backing behind the KPP.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said his party was “not concerned” about losing support.
“I think that the people understand. The CPP called them a traitor, then the CPP wants them to have a political party to try and split the CNRP – it’s a trick,” he said.
“People have the best judgment to elect leaders who are competent to lead the country, and trust only the CNRP.”
But political analyst Ou Virak said it was likely the KPP would “resonate with some CNRP supporters” in search of more “radical” politics.
“With the culture of dialogue, some people are starting to question the CNRP . . . This could pressure the CNRP into being more radical too.”
And it’s not only the CNRP that could stand to lose votes.
The KPP’s representative in Takeo province, 50-year-old Khim Bun Chhom, said he had switched allegiances from Funcinpec.
“I’m not interested in joining Funcinpec anymore, because we always lost. I was fed up with being a member of a party like that,” he explained.
According to Serey Ratha, the KPP has obtained “50 defectors” from other parties who were district and city council members, and former parliamentary candidates in the 2013 election.
He added that there are plans for a number of parties that competed in the election to merge with the KPP.
Dismissing claims that the registration of the group was a tactical decision, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said his party welcomed the competition.
Leaders of the CPP “have said so far that if a competitor is strong, it will make things more meaningful, like if we join a kick-boxing match with strong people”.