Since the widely condemned arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha on “treason” charges this month, at least a dozen Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers have left the country, though a senior party official yesterday insisted they would “return soon”.
However, the absence of key figures at a crucial time for the party prompted observers to wonder whether their departure played into a strategy by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to weaken the opposition ahead of next year’s elections.
Among those who left the country for various reasons are CNRP Deputy President Eng Chhay Eang; lawmakers Ou Chanrith, Ho Vann, and Long Ry; and spokesmen Yim Sovann and Yem Ponhearith. This leaves the CNRP without the chairs of its executive, disciplinary and steering committees.
In a letter dated September 10, a US-based CNRP support group expressed their concern about lawmakers who had left the country, and requested them to return to the Kingdom immediately.
At a press conference yesterday morning, CNRP chief whip Son Chhay insisted the members would return soon. “There doesn’t seem to be any fear. Some are having missions abroad, some have to fulfil the party’s tasks abroad,” he said. “But they will return soon to continue [to move] our work forward.”
However, his colleague, Mao Monyvann, allowed that fear may have pushed some to leave – though he acknowledged that others had left prior to Sokha’s arrest, or for health reasons.
“[But some] also left because of political motivations – [they] can be worried too,” he said, adding that most should come back early October.
Chanrith, however, said he was “not sure” when he would return to Cambodia, and declined to comment on his reasons for being abroad. Other absent lawmakers could not be reached.
Ear Sophal, associate professor of diplomacy at Occidental College in Los Angeles, in an email raised doubts whether the party could continue its work with so much of its leadership overseas.
“It’s hard to imagine how it can function at all,” he said. “It’s like falling dominoes. Tip over the first couple and the rest will fall down.”
This also had wider implications, he said. “For some it will confirm that democracy was never there to begin with . . . For others it means the CNRP is looking more and more zombie-like, a party in name but with its leadership decapitated. I’m in this camp.”
But the CNRP’s Monyvann said this concern was unfounded. “There are more than 10 permanent committee members remaining, so there is no problem [for the party] to proceed. [We are] just a little bit tired,” he said.
However, Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, echoed Ear’s concerns, adding that this may have been part of the ruling party’s strategy all along. “[I]t will be very difficult for them to mount an effective campaign for next year’s election. This is precisely the CPP’s aim,” he said.
“Democracy has never really existed in Cambodia in a meaningful sense, but now, with strong backing from Beijing, the government is abandoning all pretence.”
But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan vehemently denied the accusation, maintaining those who suggested a ruling party plot were “troublemakers” who were “all CNRP supporters”.
“Bring them to jail, or kick them out of the country,” he said. “They’re all B.S. Bulls—!”
Additional reporting by Meas Sokchea and Mech Dara