Opposition leader Kem Sokha said in an interview on Saturday that he believed Prime Minister Hun Sen could be compelled to relinquish power if he loses the July 2018 national election and that his party’s task was now to present itself as a group ready to take the reins of government.
In an hour-long interview at his home in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district, Sokha told The Post the results of the June 4 commune elections had not been as good for the opposition party as he had hoped, and that he had spent the last week travelling the country to keep spirits up.
Sokha had set 60 percent of the national vote as the CNRP’s goal, but preliminary results show it won only about 44 percent to the CPP’s 51 percent – still a large gain from the 2012 commune vote, when the opposition won about 30 percent to the CPP’s 61 percent.
“Soon after the election, the ruling party announced it had won and claimed that we lost – it made us disheartened, and so the big goal of these trips has been to show people that we did not lose,” Sokha said, explaining that the CNRP’s surge was significant.
“We won, and are moving forward, but we have to keep moving,” Sokha said. “There were some people who worked very hard to vote for change but for now we could not [achieve] change, so they were tired with it, and we do not want them to get tired.”
Hun Sen and his CPP would now be rapidly reorganising for the July 2018 national election, Sokha said, so the opposition too had to press ahead – especially with its former leader, Sam Rainsy, choosing again to stay in France to avoid politically tinged criminal convictions here.
Rainsy last week said he would not be returning to Cambodia as promised to face threats of arrest after Hun Sen lifted a travel ban on his return. His announcement came about a year after Sokha decided to stay in the country despite similar legal threats against him from the prime minister.
Asked to compare his style as opposition leader to that of Rainsy – with whom Sokha long feuded before they merged their competing parties into the CNRP in July 2012 – Sokha demurred, and said that he could only evaluate his own leadership style.
Yet pressed to provide some similarities and differences with Rainsy, Sokha said he always tried to take a consultative and temperate approach to leadership, and also tried not to react to provocations or make big decisions on the fly according to his feelings.
“We have the same goals. We want change, because we have seen that our country could face danger under today’s rulers – and both of us have sacrificed a lot and have faced challenges – but for me, I do not think it is only me who can lead,” Sokha said.
“Any person can lead when the party has clear principles and goals . . . and as leaders, we should not just do things according to feelings; we do things with strategy and principles – this is what I have done.”
“Even try to poke me anywhere,” he added. “I will not just hop up according to my feelings – I would use principles to try to solve the issue. For the issues I handle, I take a group approach, and whatever I put to the meeting, when the meeting decides, I release that.”
“This is my way of working.”
One of those decisions, Sokha said, was for the CNRP to abandon anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. Like many foes of the CPP before them, both Sokha and Rainsy have often turned to anti-Vietnamese rhetoric to appeal to animosity toward the country’s historical enemy.
As recently as the 2013 national election, Rainsy used a campaign stop at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap to call for the Cambodian people to take the temple complex “back” from the CPP-connected Vietnamese-Cambodian businessman who managed its ticketing system.
A month before that, Sokha had been caught on tape allegedly claiming that the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 torture centre in Phnom Penh was fabricated by the invading Vietnamese in 1979 as a propaganda tool to justify their invasion of Cambodia.
Sokha acknowledged the opposition had appealed to hostility toward the Vietnamese to win votes, but said it had made a decision to eschew such rhetoric to instead focus on its specific policy issues – and to avoid both being cast as a racist party and creating hostilities.
“The CNRP has become a party that is preparing to lead the country, so there is no need to talk about these issues that just bring some popularity and also bring disputes and tension. We should be raising the points that bring interest for the people,” Sokha said.
“We can’t do it this time. If we did it this time, it will create anger. It’s a hot issue and we try to avoid it,” Sokha said. “I explained to the leaders of the party how this could gain or lose, and the dangers, and they supported it . . . so this is the principle of the party.”
Yet the CNRP has made such promises in the past before lapsing back into the rhetoric, and the issue remains sensitive for Hun Sen, who was installed by the Vietnamese in 1985 during Cambodia’s communist era and has seethed at being called Hanoi’s puppet.
Many observers have wondered whether Hun Sen, who has now been prime minister for 32 years and has repeatedly warned that civil war will break out if he loses power, would ever give up power to his CNRP opponents if they win the July 2018 national election. He also warned last month that he was prepared to “eliminate 100 or 200 people” to ensure stability in the country.
Sokha said he did not know much about the man on a personal level, but made no mistakes about his character as a political leader.
“For work, I know that he always tries to take advantage and does not want to talk in an equal way with his partners. This is his character. He wants to take advantage of us, so I don’t confront him or make him angry, and I just stick to my stances,” Sokha said.
“We have seen that he has done the same thing again and again, both in his way of speaking and character, and his political stance and his message.”
Yet he insisted that he believed Hun Sen had “learned a lesson from the past few years” – which have seen opposition officials and civil society members sued, imprisoned, beaten and murdered – and would not be so aggressive over the coming year.
An outright rejection of any CNRP win in 2018 was not impossible, he said, but many elites Hun Sen would rely on for such a task would be able to accept an opposition victory “when they believe that they live peacefully with us, with their existing wealth”.
Sokha would not comment on the prospects of a coalition, but said the party had learned from Funcinpec’s travails in the 1990s as the CPP’s increasingly marginalised partner. In any case, he said it was not certain the CPP’s outward control of the military and state institutions would serve it much use.
“It’s not easy,” Sokha said of the idea of convincing the CPP to cede power. “If the election is very close, it will be difficult and it could lead to this or that, but I believe when we win strongly and highly, there will be discussions about handing over power.”
“The situation now is not like 1993, 1998 or 2003, and it is not only the people but the civil servants and the armed forces who know what is positive and negative – and who is good and bad – and they do not want Cambodian society to keep fighting,” he said.
“I believe Hun Sen and the CPP know this.”