Reshaping Cambodia’s political landscape ahead of looming elections, opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Saturday resigned as president and left the Cambodia National Rescue Party, explaining yesterday that his decision was to “protect the party” from dissolution.
The decision by the longtime opposition leader followed threats by Prime Minister Hun Sen to pass laws that would bar convicts from political leadership and disband parties led by people convicted of crimes in Cambodian courts.
In a video posted on Facebook yesterday, the 67-year-old, who faces two widely criticised convictions carrying seven years in prison as well as several other lawsuits, said he was resigning from the party so it could contest upcoming elections.
“If I was still the president, and the party gets dissolved, is there a benefit? It only damages our interests, the party’s interests and the nation’s interest,” Rainsy said from France.
“So what [do we] want? We want the election. We want changes through the election. But they want to dissolve our party, and if it is dissolved, our party cannot compete and the election is meaningless. Then we lose a historical opportunity to bring the changes that Cambodian people want.”
His resignation from the party, labelled the “end of an era” by one analyst, was formally accepted by the opposition permanent committee yesterday, which named acting president Kem Sokha as interim leader until a replacement is formally selected at a 2018 party congress.
A letter which circulated yesterday, suggesting Rainsy had asked Sokha to appoint his wife Tioulong Saumura as president in his place, was dismissed by Rainsy, Saumura and party spokespeople as “fake”.
Via email, Rainsy said he now “no longer had any responsibility in the party”, but continued to “support it and its current leadership”.
He did not, however, discount a return to politics, claiming he was still the “national and international symbol of resistance to the Hun Sen regime”.
“For the rest, you will see,” said Rainsy. “A politician’s career is likely to last as long as he has the popular support to fulfill his mission as assigned by the majority of his nation.”
The recent proposal by Hun Sen to amend the 1997 Law on Political Parties to block convicts from political leadership and allow parties to be dissolved if a leader is convicted of a crime was widely seen as the latest in a string of political attacks on the CNRP by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
There was doubt in some quarters, however, whether the CPP would follow through and disband their main political rivals.
Speaking yesterday, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan reiterated the claim that the proposed amendments were not targeting any specific party and added that the National Assembly’s permanent committee would meet today to select a day to vote.
At a press conference yesterday at the CNRP headquarters, spokesman Yim Sovann applauded Rainsy’s decision, saying the party’s “mistreatment” and “difficulties” had presented an opportunity.
“This is a very good opportunity for Mr president Sam Rainsy to present an example of patriotism for all politicians in Cambodia that positions and titles are not important,” he said.
Opposition Senator Seng Mardi said he also supported the decision, calling it a “good strategic move”.
“Now instead of focusing on the national issues, it’s come down to individuals having a playground fight,” he said. “It has put everything else at risk. I think this shows that Rainsy is a mature enough politician to back out and let it cool down.”
Rainsy, a former investment banker and founding member of the royalist FUNCINPEC party in 1981, has been the leading opposition figure in Cambodia for the past 20 years, though he has spent several years abroad to avoid arrest.
Appointed finance minister after the 1993 elections saw the royalists and CPP enter a coalition government, he formed his own Khmer Nation Party in 1995 after being kicked out of Funcinpec following his criticism of state graft.
In 1997, he survived a deadly grenade attack on a party rally, and in 1998 he changed the party’s name to the Sam Rainsy Party, after a splinter group attempted to take the group’s name.
Electorally, the party remained unable to challenge the CPP’s dominance until merging with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party in 2012 to create the CNRP which, the following year, won 55 of the parliament’s 123 seats.
It’s this threat, analysts say, that’s sparked the latest crackdown by Hun Sen against his rival and his party, which has seen opposition members and government critics charged and jailed in widely criticised cases.
Rainsy has not stepped foot in Cambodia since 2015, when he elected not to return to face prison time after a long-dormant defamation and incitement conviction, widely thought to be quashed by a royal pardon, was revived. Last year, he was barred from the country officially.
In his absence, analysts have often questioned the strength of Rainsy’s and Sokha’s partnership and that of their followers, particularly after Sokha was granted a royal pardon for a “prostitution”-related conviction last December, which freed him from effective house arrest.
Reached yesterday, CNRP official and Sokha’s daughter Kem Monovithya said the resignation followed consultation between the opposition’s top leaders, though she didn’t respond to questions about stability in the party.
“The elections will not have any legitimacy if CNRP cannot compete,” she said.
“[Rainsy] remains the symbol of the opposition movement to supporters, that’s unchanged.”
Most analysts yesterday broadly viewed the move as positive, allowing Rainsy to draw fire away from the party.
Some, though, questioned if there were more reasons for his surprise exit and whether it was permanent or temporary.
Political commentator Ou Virak said there would be “unease” among Rainsy’s allies in the party about losing sway, but noted the short time frame until the June commune elections meant “they don’t have time to fight”.
Virak said he expected that Rainy’s public rationale was not “the whole picture”, saying it was “unreasonable” to “give up the fight” in the face of a legislative threat. “I think there must be other reasons and it could be that there needs to be that transition,” he said. “There could be some . . . personal reasons for why he no longer wants to be in the midst of the fight.”
However, another well-informed political commentator, who wished to remain anonymous, said he considered the move advantageous, saying Rainsy, seen as making a sacrifice, would protect the party, while placing the burden on Hun Sen to make the next move.
“For me, this resignation will force the CPP to have a serious discussion internally,” he said.
“Members of the CPP can rationally ask the PM ‘what is next? If we move ahead to amend the law, it would still result in negative public opinion, but if we don’t, people would see our attempt to change was aimed at one person’.”
Transparency International director Preap Kol applauded the move, saying it showed Rainsy as “unselfish”, and laid bare the CPP’s undemocratic strategy.
Prominent activist monk But Buntenh, meanwhile, said the decision could pave the way for fresh leadership.
Reached yesterday, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia Sebastian Strangio said the loss of an “iconic” leader could take a toll on the party, though noted that the move would give CNRP members “breathing room” to prepare for elections.
“I wouldn’t rule out Rainsy’s return to politics at some point, but at the moment it does seem to mark the end of an era, in which he has been the primary opposition leader,” said Strangio. “I’m assuming this marks Kem Sokha’s step onto the main stage . . . the 2018 election is shaping up as a battle between Hun Sen and Kem Sokha, which in many ways is a more interesting clash.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY LAY SAMEAN