Blindsided by a damaging political scandal, the Cambodia National Rescue Party finally moved into crisis management mode on Monday, defending acting president Kem Sokha from allegations he had denied the existence of the notorious Khmer Rouge S-21 prison.
The response, however, came two days after the scandal broke, leaving observers to wonder why the opposition CNRP had dragged its feet for so long, and whether the delay says something about the party’s preparedness mere months before the national election.
“They have the spokesperson, but they don’t have a team, and they don’t have a good strategy,” said Pa Nguon Teang, director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media. “They just wait for the media to approach them rather than approaching the media.”
On Monday, after refusing to speak to reporters about the controversy, Sokha offered some explanation of how his comments could have been cut out of context in the roughly one-minute edited clip to suggest S-21 was a Vietnamese invention.
At last, the CNRP issued a statement that afternoon, saying the comments were misleadingly edited from a more than year-old speech rather than a recent outing to Prey Veng province recent outing to Prey Veng province on May 18, as the Council Ministers’ website claims.
The CNRP further argued yesterday that Sokha was not even in Prey Veng on the day in question and said they have a recording of what they claim is the actual speech, devoid of any reference to S-21, which he delivered in Kampong Cham province that day.
“On May 18, he was in Kampong Cham, and we have the full speech in Kampong Cham and that has already been broadcast a few days afterward, and we have that full recorded,” Kem Sokha’s daughter and CNRP deputy director of public affairs Kem Monovithya said yesterday.
“Why over a year ago wasn’t there any reaction from the public? And, of course, people listen to his speeches all the time,” she said. “What we are saying is that if it was offensive, people would have reacted over a year ago.”
But such defences came far too late; the scandal had already assumed a life of its own.
The CNRP statement came hours after Prime Minister Hun Sen picked up on the controversy in a speech and ran with it, using the CPP-distributed recording of Sokha, in which he appears to call S-21 a Vietnamese myth, to propose a law outlawing genocide denial.
Suddenly, Sokha found himself portrayed as a conspiracy theorist whose comments questioned the crimes of a regime that killed his own father.
Historians have written that the Vietnamese helped with the preservation of S-21, more commonly known as Tuol Sleng but had nothing to do with it when it was an active prison where about 13,000 Cambodians were imprisoned there before being killed by the Khmer Rouge.
Today, Sokha will for the first time formally address the press. But the CNRP still have not provided a clear and coherent explanation of exactly how Sokha’s comments in the short, ruling party-produced audio clip could have been twisted out of context, and their glacial response to the damning allegations has been hard for some to fathom.
Yim Sovann, a spokesman from one of the two parties that merged to create the CNRP last year, said it took time to release an accurate response, and that a team of three sifted through hour after hour of speeches to find the relevant tape.
“We had to check one by one. Oh, it took a long time. He went to many provinces, and many communes, we had to check one by one,” he said.
“We found out everything the CPP said was fabricated,” he added, accusing the ruling party of splicing the recording together to create a misrepresentation of Sokha’s views.
Sovann said a recording of the actual speech Sokha delivered on May 18 would be presented to the media.
Ek Tha, a spokesman for the Council of Minister’s Press and Quick Reaction Unit, yesterday emphatically denied that the recording of Sokha had been misleadingly edited, but would not say whether the PQRU would release the full audio clip so this could be verified.
“Whatever he said is from very strong evidence, and the Press and Quick Reaction Unit is very accurate. We do not make things up. We stick to the facts; we stick to comments made by Kem Sokha, and Kem Sokha’s comments were very unacceptable,” he said.
Though the PQRU has had his party on the ropes for the past few days, Sovann scoffed at the idea the CNRP needed a more sophisticated PR machine.
He pointed out that with no access to state radio and television, the opposition was limited to print media and a radio station with insufficient broadcasting reach as its only platforms.
“How can we communicate the message to the people? You know how many people read the newspaper? Only one or two people read the newspaper,” he said. “It is not a matter for human resources. It is a matter of CPP control of the media.”
But crisis communications is a new reality for all parties in Cambodia. The CPP’s PQRU is itself only a few years old and only recently created a position for a dedicated National Assembly spokesman.
Laura Thornton, senior director for the Cambodia wing of the National Democratic Institute, said her organisation provided training in media messaging for provincial officials with various party affiliations last year.
“There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of familiarity with the process,” she said. “They were less capable of identifying what their opponent might say about them.”
In the training, officials were asked to foresee what another party might say about them during an exercise called “message box”.
“Before a crisis happens, what could happen? What are your weaknesses? how can you address your vulnerabilities?” Thornton said. “I think all the parties are going to have to be savvier and more on top of this.”
And perhaps yesterday Sokha had heeded that message when he publicly announced he would support Hun Sen’s proposed law to outlaw genocide denial legislation, no doubt a primer for revelations at tomorrow’s press conference. As for the very top of the CNRP, the response was succinct. Answering a series of questions about the scandal, self-exiled president Sam Rainsy, who lives abroad to avoid prison terms in Cambodia, merely wrote: “I am disturbed by this incident, which makes me feel sorry,” in an emailed response to the Post on Monday.