The Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) said the departure of two of their senior members to join the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is for the sake of developing the agricultural sector, a goal that is also in line with the GDP’s principles.

Yang Saing Koma, a prominent agriculture expert and formerly the GDP board chairman, and Lek Sothear, former deputy secretary-general and spokesman for the party, jumped ship last week and met with Prime Minister Hun Sen on November 28 to present their 12-point proposal to improve the sector. The duo accompanied Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Dith Tina during their meeting with the premier.

While the departure from the GDP drew criticism among some other parties, their new official roles in the sector have largely been applauded.

However, GDP secretary-general Sam Inn, who now also serves as the party’s spokesman, clarified that Saing Koma and Sothear made their own decisions to join the ruling party in accordance with the political rights and freedoms that every individual enjoys. He also stressed that the duo’s intention to improve the agricultural sector is also one of the GDP’s goals.

“We regret the loss of these two members, but they have appropriate reasons and personal reasons [to change party], and we don’t have any right to block them from doing so.

“After the June 5 commune council elections this year, they had discussions with us regarding some challenges they faced, and they then decided to join the CPP. But the main reason is that they have agricultural expertise and a clear plan to help farmers,” Inn said.

According to Inn, the departure of Saing Koma and Sothear came after the GDP sent a letter to agriculture minister Tina requesting a meeting to discuss issues faced by farmers. Following the meeting, Tina suggested that Saing Koma join the government so that they could be more deeply involved with the sector.

“After the discussion, Saing Koma decided to join the government, and it is actually an opportunity for him to apply his knowledge and to fulfil his desire to help the agricultural sector, because only the government has the resources and power to implement this work,” Inn said.

He stressed that there was quid-pro-quo offered for Saing Koma to join the CPP. Following his departure, Inn said the GDP will hold a meeting to restructure their leadership in the near future.

Saing Koma now holds the position of secretary of state at the agriculture ministry, while Sothear serves as under-secretary.

Through an additional Royal Decree, Saing Koma has also been appointed as Minister attached to the Prime Minister on top of his secretary of state post.

Saing Koma said on November 29 that he had submitted his letter of resignation to the GDP one week ago in order to join the CPP.

“I have discussed with [Tina] the issues concerning agriculture and rice and the ideas to solve these issues, and he agreed with my 12-point plan. Also, Prime Minister Hun Sen supported these measures to solve rice issues,” Saing Koma said.

He said that in his official position with the agriculture ministry, he would prioritise finding solution to rice issues, which would require three factors: Support from the government and agriculture ministry, cooperation from other relevant authorities and financial support.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the participation of Saing Koma and Sothear would be a strong contribution to the government towards improving the agriculture sector. He rejected criticisms that the duo had been “bought” ahead of next year’s general election.

“Such commentary is disdainful of the political rights of Saing Koma and [Sothear],” Eysan said.

Political analyst Em Sovannara echoed Inn’s remarks, saying that Saing Koma and Sothear joined the CPP for clear reasons related to assisting in the agricultural sector. He said it was therefore somewhat different from previous defections by other parties’ officials, which usually happened before and during elections.

“With regard to the price of rice, I think it will still be a challenge for farmers, no matter how much ability Saing Koma has or how good his plans may be,” he said, adding that the initiative would only be possible with enough support and intervention from the government.

Royal Academy of Cambodia (RAC) secretary-general Yang Peou said that Saing Koma would contribute significantly to the agricultural sector as he used to be the leader of a prominent agriculture NGO: the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC).

“He can make great contributions in agriculture and other sectors. What’s important is that this all depends on the vision of the agriculture minister. If the minister has a good and clear vision and knows how to use human resources properly by placing the national interest on top, then the agricultural sector reforms will go smoothly,” he said.