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Analysis: CNRP's leadership lockdown

Heavily armed police wait in front of the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh during a search for acting opposition leader Kem Sokha in May.
Heavily armed police wait in front of the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh during a search for acting opposition leader Kem Sokha in May. Pha Lina

Analysis: CNRP's leadership lockdown

Under constant threat of arrest from a raft of court cases, acting Cambodia National Rescue Party president Kem Sokha today marks three months of virtual imprisonment within CNRP HQ.

Unable to do what he’s known best for – rousing the party’s base in the provinces with heated speeches – the firebrand has instead been forced to watch on as Prime Minister Hun Sen continues a nationwide tour to ramp up support for the Cambodian People’s Party.

Sokha, meanwhile, has had to make do with meeting party officials, supporters and representatives of the international community and communicating through Facebook.

And with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party seemingly setting the current political agenda, in a country with no opinion polls, it’s difficult to get a true sense of which party is faring better as commune elections fast approach.

Noting the CPP had, for the most part, sidelined both of the CNRP’s leaders – with party president Sam Rainsy in open-ended self-exile to avoid a prison sentence – academic Ear Sophal said he believed the state of play was advantageous to the CPP, whose resources would see it prevail at next year’s commune elections.

“The commune elections will be fairly predictable in my view,” said Sophal, an associate professor at the Los Angeles-based Occidental College. “People vote locally and the power of the CPP locally is overwhelming. Not that this is fair or right.”

But while the CPP’s strategy of attacking their opponents through the courts – acknowledged at a recent meeting of the party’s central committee – may be keeping Sokha physically at bay, it could also backfire for the premier.

One political observer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said far from weakening Sokha, the current strategy was increasing his credibility in the eyes of voters, making him “more a model of courage”, and thus a “dangerous threat” to the CPP.

“That’s why I still believe Kem Sokha will have to be, sometime soon, brought to the real jail, not virtual jail,” the observer said.

And though imprisoning the lawmaker could further incense an electorate tired of such tactics, allowing Sokha freedom to communicate and coordinate could be even more damaging for the premier, particularly as he faces mounting pressure from within the CPP, he added.

“This strategy is not working and it could be very dangerous in terms of the internal politics of the CPP,” he said.

“You build all this to politically kill your opponent and then it has the opposite result, building up your enemy to become much more credible than before.”

But CPP spokesman Sok Eysan rubbished any claims of dissent within the ranks, saying party members backed initiating court procedures against “individuals who commit an offence”.

“Which CPP members do not agree with the court’s procedures?” he queried. “No one will side with the offenders.”

Eysan said Sokha was free to leave the CNRP office, visit the communes and even campaign for the upcoming elections, insisting his “detention” was self-imposed.

Sokha’s legal hassles stem from an alleged sex scandal with hairdresser Khom Chandaraty, which was made public following the online leak of recorded conversations purportedly between the two in March.

Consequently, he is facing accusations of procurement of prostitution, a $1 million defamation suit from social media celebrity Thy Sovantha for disparaging her in one of the recordings, and a $300,000 case from Chandaraty as well.

Speaking to the Post, CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang said he believed Sokha’s prolonged stay at the party’s office would only go to heighten the party’s support base, given that “Khmer people always love and sympathise with victims.”

However, an opposition parliamentarian, who also requested anonymity to speak freely, was less upbeat, saying the legal harassment of Sokha and other party members had left the party feeling “strangled”, and backed into a corner.

“Most of us don’t dare to speak out because we are always thinking of the consequences,” he said.

“Just a flip of the mouth and you can end up in court, and it’s a very powerful court. Anyone can be put in jail without trial.”

The lawmaker said it appeared the CPP had “backed off” and opted to soften their tactics ahead of the commune elections, which he believed they would use as a test for their strategy.

“I think they will think about [the impact] after the commune election. I think right now they have done enough work . . . don’t forget we are all restricted to speak freely now,” they said.

“If it doesn’t work, then they will take decisive action.”

He acknowledged that Sokha’s imprisonment would create “more problems” for the party, but added that the CNRP’s number three, Pol Ham, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was ready to take the reins domestically, while Rainsy could still steer from abroad.

Such pressure, he claimed, would only serve to push the opposition’s at-times querulous Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party factions – which merged to create the CNRP in 2012 – closer together.

“When the two leaders are under stress like this, the subordinates are working together . . . If we are fighting each other, we have nothing left.”However, the political observer said he was less certain of cohesion in the event of Sokha’s arrest.

“They are not reputed to love each other, those guys at the CNRP,” he said.

Sophal, of Occidental College, said the opposition’s second-tier leadership was untested and a power vacuum was a likely possibility.

“We are still dealing with a party that revolves around two personalities. What happens when they’re effectively sidelined by the ruling party, and, as a result, can’t lead?” he said.

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