TANG CHHIN SOTHY/ AFP
Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy answers journalists’ questions at the SRP headquarters in Phnom Penh on June 10. CPP officials around the country have said that as many as 160,000 SRP members have defected in recent weeks, a figure Rainsy says is exaggerated.
In the run-up to next month's national election, officials with the Cambodian People's Party say that their activists in the provinces have been charged with co-opting Sam Rainsy Party members as the ruling party engages in a policy of silencing the opposition's voice in government.
Sam Rainsy Party defectors are deluging the ruling CPP's ranks, according to party officials who say that tens of thousands of opposition members across the country could abandon their posts ahead of the polls in exchange for government jobs promised by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
"We know that the SRP defections will cause the opposition party to lose seats in the National Assembly. We learned this from Funcinpec, which splintered just as the SRP is doing now," said Cheam Yeap, a CPP lawmaker representing Prey Veng province, where he said more than 2,000 opposition party members have crossed sides.
Yeap told the Post on June 11 that Sam Rainsy Party defectors will be posted to the government as secretaries of state, undersecretaries of state and advisers.
"No one [in the CPP] is upset about the new appointments because, as the prime minister said, no government officials are being removed, only added," he said.
Cambodians go to the polls on July 27 in an election that is likely to see the CPP win enough votes to quit the coalition government agreement that has been in place since the early 1990s, forcing it into an often uncomfortable partnership with its political rival Funcinpec.
But Funcinpec, formerly a bastion of royalist politicians, was similarly dismantled following the 2003 general election as Hun Sen awarded prominent government positions to acquiescent party member.
CPP district bosses around the country have said that as many as 160,000 opposition members have defected in recent weeks
"We did not offer them money to join us. Their political will was exhausted," said Phay Buncheoun, deputy governor and CPP chief for Kandal province. "They lost confidence in the SRP," he added.
But Sam Rainsy has hit back, claiming that the ruling party was exaggerating the number of defections.
"The number of defectors is very low and will have little impact on the coming elections. Those who abandoned us have done so merely out of self-interest," he said.
Election monitors say that the CPP's divide and conquer tactics were to be expected before the election, but that plundering the nation's coffers to buy off defectors was wrong.
"We see that there is trend of inducing politicians to grab power in the government shortly before elections, and it is inappropriate because it puts a burden on the national budget," said Thun Saray of the human rights monitor Adhoc.
Hun Sen's personal adviser Chum Kosal confirmed on June 11 that salaries for the newly appointed opposition defectors would be drawn from the national budget.
Saray added that discontent with the Sam Rainsy Party leadership may have encouraged defectors - a point conceded by opposition party vice president Kong Korm, who blamed the defectors' displeasure on their own failure to work for the party.
"They were not happy, so they left, which is normal," Korm said.
The CPP's Yeap, however, phrased it in harsher terms.
"We have a Khmer proverb: ‘The fish always swim to cool water.' The SRP is boiling; the fish no longer want to live in hot water," he said.
(Additional reporting by Meas Sokchea)