Despite assurances from former opposition leader Sam Rainsy that a newly unveiled “movement” would be free from government pressure, the Ministry of Interior said yesterday that it intends to investigate and punish the “illegal rebels” behind it.
Rainsy announced the creation of the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM) earlier this week, saying that it was able to call for demonstrations in response to Cambodia’s democratic backslide because it was not a political party – unlike the recently dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, which Rainsy helped to found.
But speaking after the annual meeting for the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said there would be an investigation into the legality of the so-called movement.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak confirmed an investigation is imminent, and said the CNRM was created by Rainsy and other “illegal rebels” intent on overthrowing the Cambodian government.
The CNRP was dissolved in November on similar grounds – though little evidence was presented to substantiate the claim – raising widespread questions about the legitimacy of this year’s national elections in the absence of the country’s only viable opposition party. CNRP President Kem Sokha, meanwhile, has been in pre-trial detention on widely decried “treason” charges since September.
Rainsy preceded Sokha as the CNRP’s president, but has been abroad since 2015 to avoid numerous politically tinged court convictions, which ultimately forced him to leave the party.
Sopheak yesterday said the government was now looking to identify those involved with the new CNRM.
“The movement is an illegal one, and the law will punish all those people,” he said.
In a Radio Free Asia interview in the US on Monday, Rainsy said that the remnants of the CNRP will not seek to contest the election through a proxy party, but will instead advocate for protests. The Supreme Court’s November 16 ruling to dissolve the CNRP banned 118 of its senior officials from politics for five years.
“We need to have a new strategy . . . We will stop playing the game that Hun Sen organised,” he said.
“The CNRM will appeal to the people to stand up and protest on a huge scale, and at the same time, we would like to call for the armed forces, military and police not to listen to orders from the dictator.”
The Interior Ministry’s Sopheak, however, said that demonstrations would not be allowed – despite the fact that the right to demonstrate peacefully is enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution – and appeared to gloat that with Sokha in jail and Rainsy abroad, nobody would dare to lead them.
“[We] won’t allow it, and no one dares to do so . . . There is no leader. The civil society organisations also do not have leaders . . . There is no leader to give the order,” he said, warning NGOs that if they were to get involved they could also be subject to legal action.
Rainsy said earlier this week that the “movement” could also include members of civil society.
An announcement of the movement’s formation earlier this week included senior CNRP leaders Eng Chay Eang and Mu Sochua as signatories. It also lists the names of three members of the US’s CNRP branch and three former lawmakers, though one – Yukda Tuon – posted on Facebook saying he, in fact, did not support the movement. All five are currently abroad.
The announcement appeared to widen the divide between Rainsy and Sokha’s wings of the CNRP, which was the result of a 2012 merger of the Sam Rainsy Party and Sokha’s Human Rights Party. Though Rainsy has said the goal of the movement is to secure Sokha’s release, some former party members have asserted that it actually puts him at greater risk.
When asked about the divisions, Rainsy yesterday downplayed their significance.
“For security reasons our visible leadership must be limited in number. What is important is the popular support for the Movement, which is growing fast,” he said by email.In the RFA interview, Rainsy also accused “Kem Sokha’s people” of being “narrow minded”.
“I believe that Kem Sokha will express his support towards the CNRM,” he said.
Dr Paul Chambers, a Southeast Asia expert and lecturer at Naresuan University, expressed doubt that protests would take place in the current political atmosphere.
“What the Cambodian opposition needs is a very charismatic leader who is a uniter and possesses such substantial gravitas that he can compete with Hun Sen. So far I do not see such a leader emerging,” he said via email.
“Meanwhile state repression and Opposition disunity will sustain Hun Sen in power,” he added.
Cambodian analyst Lao Mong Hay said the opposition already had a charismatic leader in Rainsy himself, but he won’t be able to effect change from outside the country.
“[Rainsy] needs to be present in the country to organise and lead those demonstrations,” he said.
“There are scarcely any activists of calibre in the country who have similar guts and charisma to do the job in his place. Furthermore the security forces seem to be well capable and ready to nip such demonstrations in the bud.”