When Cambodia National Rescue Party President Kem Sokha stood arm-in-arm with three newly minted deputies earlier this year, the quartet seemed eager and ready to address the party’s next challenge at hand: critical commune elections that could greatly bolster grassroots support.
After capturing 44 percent of the popular vote and nearly a third of the country’s commune chief positions in the June poll, the emboldened party appeared poised to mount a serious challenge against the Cambodian People’s Party at the national ballot scheduled for 2018.
But, almost exactly six months after his ascension to the party presidency, Sokha was arrested in a midnight raid by nearly 100 police officials and summarily charged with “treason”. Senior party leaders who were overseas chose not return, and others have since left the country following Sokha’s arrest – the latest being party Deputy President Mu Sochua, who said she was warned her arrest was imminent following threats from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Now, with its leadership scattered to the winds and Hun Sen vowing to keep up the pressure, the CNRP is having to fight a battle on several fronts, preventing the party from engaging with its most important goal – paving the way to a 2018 election victory.
Among the more than 20 senior party members who left the country for various reasons are Co-Deputy President Eng Chhay Eang; lawmakers Ou Chanrith, Ho Vann, and Long Ry; and spokesmen Yim Sovann and Yem Ponhearith. Their absence leaves the CNRP without the chairs of its executive, disciplinary and steering committees.
“With much of its leadership exiled, in hiding, or behind bars, it is hard to see how the CNRP will be able to mount even a minimally effective campaign for next year’s election,” Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said in an email. “It will likely only put up perfunctory resistance to the CPP. This, of course, is precisely the government’s aim.”
The exodus was only exacerbated by near-daily threats from Hun Sen claiming that there were others from the CNRP involved in the Sokha case – frequently referring to them as “spies” – as well as statements from Interior Ministry and National Police officials confirming that the search was on for these individuals.
According to a Fresh News report, quoting an anonymous Immigration Department official, only 20 of the CNRP’s 55 lawmakers are present in Cambodia, with the rest having travelled abroad – though Sochua claims only around 20 had left the country.
This intense scrutiny of the CNRP’s depleted forces was not lost on government spokesman Phay Siphan, who was keeping his own tally of absentee lawmakers on his Facebook page as of yesterday.
Crucially, many of these party seniors, under the stewardship of Sokha, were instrumental in crisscrossing the country to mobilise grassroots support in June. Now, the only remaining members with any seniority or political sway are Deputy President Pol Ham and chief whip Son Chhay.
“It’s not impossible” for the party to mount a serious campaign for 2018, said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles – “but it will be harder than before”.
“Kem Sokha’s arrest is one thing, but half the lawmakers and senior members [are gone] and now we’re talking real human resources [issues],” Ear said.
Meanwhile, recent developments have dealt a blow to the CNRP’s post-election momentum. Following the elections, Sokha seemed to still be in campaign mode. He had launched a tour of the provinces to thank voters, but at the same time rallied support for next year’s elections. Senior party functionaries followed suit. But that came to a halt with Sokha’s arrest on September 3.
Even a more recent attempt to restart engagement with the CNRP base, which saw Sochua travelling to the northwest last week, met with the ire of the premier, who obliquely accused her of making “rude comments” in a public speech.
The same night, she was warned by a “senior government official” that she would be arrested within a week. The next day, she left the Kingdom.
Strangio said her remaining in the country despite the deteriorating political situation showed that the party was determined to push ahead, but her departure would reverberate through the party structure.
“This sends a strong message to the CNRP rank and file that no one is beyond Hun Sen’s reach,” he said via email.
Sochua’s companion on her trip to the northwest, lawmaker Mao Monyvann, put up a brave front when he insisted yesterday that the party will continue with its activities, but at the same time, he said he hoped senior members of the party would return to the country. “I believe that some leaders who are abroad will not be there for long. They will have to return back to fulfil their work [here],” he said.
Still, Monyvann admitted that the party’s current election preparations are a far cry from what would have been under Sokha’s leadership.
“Without his arrest, the atmosphere would have been normal and we could have done our activities fully,” he said.
Deputy President Ham conceded that the party has no plan for demonstrations or even a parliamentary strategy, acknowledging the party had no decision maker with Sokha behind bars.
“Our president is in a detention centre, but he is still president,” he said. “[And] besides him there are no people to take a decision on the stance of the party.”
The same sentiment was echoed by lower-level party members and activists. Officials yesterday admitted the situation was not ideal, but said that they had no option but to try to push the party’s message in the provinces – even if they are being met with dejection from supporters.
“The arrest of the leader has caused concern for the local [officials] when they work. They feel uncomfortable and unhappy,” said Battambang Commune Chief Sin Rozeth, a protégé of Sochua’s. Rozeth says local CNRP officials have been pushing for supporters to participate in the National Election Committee’s voter registration drive, but are being met with fear and apprehension.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan had little sympathy for the CNRP’s trials, claiming that the party put itself in such a situation by not following the law. “Do not say another [party] put pressure . . . it is they that pressured themselves by breaking the law,” he said, declining to comment in detail.
With the party faltering, the international community has stuck to merely “raising concerns” and the premier is still barrelling along in his crackdown on the opposition. Still, both Strangio and Sophal agreed that Hun Sen has little concern for the optics of the current state of affairs and will continue to tighten the screws.
“Certainly looks that way; no need to pretend anymore. And the price so far has not been sanctions per se, so the frog can continue to have the water’s temperature go up,” said Sophal. “Soon the water will boil and the frog will be dead.”