Emblazoned with the motif of rising suns, the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s four newly minted leaders raised their arms above their heads, their hands connected like concertina dolls.
It was sold as a symbol of enduring CNRP solidarity, but it stemmed from a political tempest.
After a wave of some 1,000 hands rose to affirm the new leaders – Kem Sokha as president, and Pol Ham, Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang as his first, second and third deputies, respectively – the quartet announced a new five-point policy plan for the country, including an election commitment of at least $500,000 annually for each of the Kingdom’s 1,646 communes.
The new leadership team received former CNRP president Sam Rainsy’s blessing via Twitter, as well as a more traditional blessing, with orange-clad monks throwing lotus petals before a reverent Sokha.
The leadership switch was prompted by the shock resignation of Rainsy last month, who stepped aside “for the good of the party”; his criminal convictions in cases widely viewed as politically motivated were a looming liability for the CNRP, and could have seen it dissolved under controversial new laws.
Three jailed CNRP members also resigned last week.
In an impassioned speech yesterday, Kem Sokha said the CNRP “must continue to move forward to bring our Cambodia to a bright future where there is no resentment, no threats and intimidation, and no infliction of suffering on one another”.
Sokha, who was embroiled in a “prostitution” case last year that saw him holed up in party headquarters for months avoiding arrest, was congratulated in a brief missive from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who wished his new political rival “good health and family happiness”.
Sokha was pardoned by the King in December at Prime Minister Hun Sen’s request.
Mu Sochua, reached yesterday, mapped out the CNRP’s policy aims: rights for the people; improving living conditions and development; rooting out corruption in the public service; strengthening security with competent police; and a decentralisation plan that would see 20 percent of the national budget (about $823 million) handed directly to communes.
“Despite the efforts to break us from the outside, we have never, ever given up … on the contrary, we used this opportunity to strengthen our commitment to our people,” she said.
Members of the CNRP congress from across the country described an elated atmosphere yesterday. Nuon Cheang, 45, council member of Kampong Speu province’s Phnom Sruoch district, was hopeful of a CNRP electoral victory. “I am content, because I see his capacity is ideal and he loves the nation truly,” he said of Sokha.
Seng Sovanna, an assistant to Sokha, said he was happy with the strategy outlined yesterday, but feared “the ruling party would do everything to oppose us”, adding that he himself had been arrested during protests.
For So Manith, 26, of the party’s women’s movement, Sochua’s elevation was important because “traditionally women in Cambodia are not made for playing a leading role in politics but there has been some limited change in mentality”.
CPP spokesman Sous Yara meanwhile said the CNRP’s plan was riddled with “empty promises”, though government spokesman Phay Siphan said the ruling party would “not interfere”.
“We don’t see them as our enemy … I think they have very good leadership, but they don’t have a chance to come to the top,” Siphan said.
Political analyst Meas Ny said the aim to decentralise should be a “priority”, “because now the national budget flows, in many places, into corrupt [hands]”.
Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said the opposition had been “hamstrung” due to “a protracted government crackdown”, but the ruling party sidelining Rainsy was not enough to quell public discontent.
“I think they face an uphill battle, but don’t be surprised if the unexpected happens.”