Former opposition leader Sam Rainsy lobbed a characteristic firebomb from France yesterday, drawing a pointed comparison between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.
In a video posted to Facebook, Rainsy expounds on the “hidden origins of the CPP”, launching into a convoluted speech calling attention to Vietnamese communists’ hand in creating the first iteration of the CPP in 1951 in the form of the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party.
He goes on to highlight Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin’s connections to both the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese, before salting the wound by appearing to impugn Hun Sen’s courage.
“Hun Sen ran away to live in Vietnam,” Rainsy taunts.
While such rhetoric has been a hallmark of Rainsy’s stump speeches for years, his abrupt resignation in February from the party he helped to found raised the question of what role he would go on play in the movement he spearheaded for decades.
But yesterday’s video and others like it seem to answer that question, analysts say: Rainsy has become the “bad cop”, hurling incendiary remarks at the CPP from the relative safety of exile, taking rhetorical risks that his former Cambodia National Rescue Party colleagues can ill afford given the likelihood of legal repercussions.
Rainsy was driven into his most recent stint of self-imposed exile in late 2015, with the government making things official about a year later, barring him from returning despite such a ban’s apparent unconstitutionality.
In February, Rainsy was obliged to resign from the CNRP to prevent past convictions being used against the CNRP under a series of controversial amendments to the Law on Political Parties rushed through the parliament by the CPP.
All the while, however, a steady stream of harsh criticism has emanated from Rainsy’s Facebook page, which boasts about 3.9 million “likes”. The attacks have drawn even more defamation convictions, only reinforcing the notion that anyone making similar remarks on Cambodian soil would certainly find themselves before the Kingdom’s oft-maligned courts.
In a recent interview, Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, acknowledged that Rainsy now enjoys freer rein to use “strong rhetoric”.
“He hasn’t needed to play nice with the government so he’s just said whatever he felt like saying … I’m not sure how coordinated it is, [but] he and other members of the party have sometimes slipped into the good cop, bad cop routine,” he said.
Since the 2013 national elections, Facebook has emerged as a key political battleground, with a recent analysis showing that Cambodians are much more likely to use the social media platform politically than peers in neighbouring countries. With the stakes so high, both parties have used the platform to push competing political narratives.
For instance, on April 17 – the anniversary of Phnom Penh’s fall to the Khmer Rouge – Rainsy took to Facebook to remind users of the ties between the Cambodian People’s Party and the Khmer Rouge. A week later, Rainsy posted a video of a speech where he told supporters in France that the Cambodian military secretly supports the CNRP. The statement prompted a condemnation from a Defence Ministry spokesman, who accused Rainsy of sowing dissension.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hun Sen has also used Facebook to push sensationalist rhetoric, recently warning voters that a victory for the opposition could plunge the country into civil war, a warning that some saw as a veiled threat. On Thursday, the day after Hun Sen’s most recent comments on impending war, the National Election Committee issued a warning against using similarly charged rhetoric during the official commune election campaign season, promising legal action for violators.
But, if Hun Sen is largely seen as being above the law, Rainsy is outside it, able to counter the prime minister’s fiery language from abroad in ways former colleagues like CNRP President Kem Sokha can’t.
“Someone’s got to be left speaking truth to power on the outside – he’s untouchable,” said Ear Sophal, a professor on world affairs at Occidental College in California who also invoked the “good cop, bad cop” dynamic.
Sophal said Rainsy is unlikely to be coordinating in “any meaningful sense” with the party on the ground, partially out of fear of legal consequences, but did say his recent attacks do appear to be part of a plan.
Cambodian political analyst Ou Virak agreed that Rainsy was helping the CNRP play both sides of the issue.
“He can galvanise support without jeopardising the opposition,” Virak said yesterday, calling it “an ideal role” for Rainsy, who may have been frustrated by having to use more restraint once the CNRP became a mainstream party.
Virak said Rainsy’s role is a necessary one, especially in light of the fact that Hun Sen and other CPP figures can make inflammatory remarks with impunity.
“Without that rhetoric they might not get the excitement they need. They need rallies, supporters, people to convince others to go out and vote and give money,” he said.
Deputy CNRP leader Mu Sochua would not comment on whether there was a coordinated “good cop, back cop” routine, but did say Rainsy was a “moral authority”, able to speak the truth and say things that other people can’t.
Rainsy himself also declined to comment on whether the strategy was coordinated, but unabashedly acknowledged that his embrace of the “bad cop” role was intentional.“But we don’t need to be too explicit,” he added.
“After June 04, 2017 Cambodia’s political landscape will be different,” he said, referring to the date of the commune elections. “The new situation will be conducive to an end of my forced exile. I will do whatever I can to continue and to reinforce the CNRP’s mission to rescue our nation from dictatorship, obscurantism and deadly corruption.”