Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Commune elections 2017: Is the CNRP missing Rainsy?

Commune elections 2017: Is the CNRP missing Rainsy?

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Ex-opposition leader Sam Rainsy (centre right, blue tie) and current CNRP leader Kem Sokha (centre left) greet supporters in Phnom Penh on the day of Rainsy’s return from self-imposed exile in 2013. STR/AFP

Commune elections 2017: Is the CNRP missing Rainsy?

In a different era, when the Cambodian People’s Party’s rule seemed inviolable, Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote to the King seeking a pardon for opposition leader Sam Rainsy to allow him to return to Cambodia, after four years abroad and a week before the national election.

The decision, made in June 2013, seemed to make some sense. After years hiding abroad to avoid prison here, Rainsy had developed a damaged reputation – at best, as skittish, and at worst, cowardly – and the CPP’s inevitable election victory would appear more legitimate with the opposition leader around.

Yet if Hun Sen hoped Rainsy’s return would cause little more than a splash, he was wrong. Throngs of supporters lined the streets to welcome him, and after a rapid-fire national tour, his opposition party almost doubled its parliamentary representation to come within seven seats of an election victory.

For the first time since the 1990s, the idea of life after Hun Sen no longer seemed far-fetched – and the lesson was not lost on the premier, according to Brad Adams, the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division and one of Hun Sen’s biggest critics over the years.

“He thinks he made a mistake in allowing Sam Rainsy back,” Adams said in an interview with Radio Free Asia in December. “As we saw when Sam Rainsy returned, hundreds of thousands of people came to the streets and it provided a lot of energy and excitement for the campaign.”

Any legitimacy conferred by Rainsy’s presence was lost twice over as the CNRP leader then led months of protests against the election results. “Hun Sen, I think, is determined not to make that mistake again,” Adams said.

With the commune elections now less than two weeks away, Rainsy is once again in Paris – this time having been officially banished from returning to Cambodia after fleeing a court case – and the government has indeed made it clear it does not want him stumping for his party this time.

Having handed the leadership of the CNRP over to his former deputy, Kem Sokha, and with airlines banned from flying him to Cambodia, Rainsy has now been properly exiled.

“At this time, he has no right to come back,” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday. “We want stability and peace during the elections. It’s the government’s right to uphold stability during the elections . . . We’re not scared of him. He’s scared of us. That’s why he ran away.”

Still, whether the banishment of Rainsy could harm the CNRP’s chances in any tangible way in the elections on June 4 remains up for debate.

According to Yoeung Sotheara, a legal and monitoring officer with elections group Comfrel, though many in the opposition may be ruing the absence of Rainsy’s charisma on the campaign trail, the party has for the last five years said it is moving beyond personalist politics.

“The interesting question is whether supporters of the opposition support the spirit of change, regardless of who is the leader of the opposition. If it is true that they do, they will still come to support the opposition,” Sotheara said.

“This is the interesting question: Will they still come? I think that people who support the opposition party now care less about who is the opposition leader. They care only about change. These are people who want change in society.”

Sotheara said that the selection of Sokha as its new leader earlier this year would likely prevent the CNRP from making any claims that Rainsy’s absence harmed turnout.

However, Rainsy himself said in an email the fact the government had ordered international airlines to ban him from returning home spoke volumes about what he called its “irrational and shameful panic when it comes to my presence and my potential role in Cambodian politics, especially at election times”.

“Any election under such circumstances can be labelled anything but fair with a level playing field. This violation of basic democratic principles due to a lack of courage and sportsmanship is seriously eroding the Hun Sen government’s legitimacy,” he said.

Rainsy said that he would be back in Cambodia “within hours” of any lifting of the ban. For some supporters, though, his absence might only stoke further anger with the government come voting day, according to Moeun Tola, head of rights group Central.

“It’s not like a couple of years ago. People are more knowledgeable. They know Sam Rainsy still aligns himself with the CNRP, and people think if the CNRP wins the elections, Sam Rainsy might come back. It’s pushing people,” Tola said.

“If he were here, his presence would help to inspire people’s sentiments, but when most people talk about the CNRP, they are still talking about Sam Rainsy,” he said.

According to Council of Ministers spokesman Siphan, however, the government had moved on from the days when it cared about Rainsy.

“He no longer has the right to stand or go to vote, so why do you care?” Siphan said. “We don’t care about him. He was a troublemaker. He caused trouble for our community.”

“What else do you have for me?” he asked.

MOST VIEWED

  • Accused not treated equally, says CCHR

    The Cambodia Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) has urged the Court of Appeal to do more to ensure that an accused’s right to a fair trial is fully respected. In a bulletin released on Monday, the CCHR said it had monitored 273 cases at the

  • Investors’ $14.4M projects approved

    New investments from local and foreign sources continue to pour into Cambodia despite the Covid-19 pandemic remaining a lingering threat to regional and global economies. This comes as the Kingdom’s gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to contract between one and 2.9 per cent this

  • NagaWorld casinos set to reopen, schools to follow

    NAGACORP Ltd has requested that it be allowed to reopen its NagaWorld integrated resorts in Phnom Penh after the government recently approved casinos to operate again, provided they follow Covid-19 prevention measures set by the Ministry of Health. Mey Vann, the director-general of the Ministry

  • Rubber exports stretch 17%

    Cambodia exported 97,175 tonnes of natural rubber in the first five months of this year, surging 17 per cent compared to the same period last year as the Covid-19 pandemic stretches on, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries official Khuong Phalla told The Post on Thursday. Phalla,

  • ASEM supports Kingdom’s proposal to postpone meeting amid Covid

    The 13th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM13) scheduled to be held in Cambodia in November has been postponed until mid-2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation press statement released on Saturday said. The decision was made during a two-day meeting

  • Coffee maker roasted for producing fake product

    The Ministry of Interior’s Counter Counterfeit Committee will send a suspect to court on Monday after she allegedly roasted coffee mixed with soybeans and other ingredients, creating a product which could pose a high risk to consumers’ health. On the afternoon of July 2, the

  • Cash handout programme 80% complete

    Minister of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation Vong Soth confirmed on Thursday that the implementation of the Cash Transfer Programme For Poor and Vulnerable Households During Covid-19 had been implemented for more than 80% of the over 560,000 families. The programme was introduced one week ago.

  • Cambodia armed with money laundering laws

    Money laundering will now carry a penalty of up to five years in prison while those convicted of financing terrorists will be jailed for up to 20 years, according to new laws promulgated by King Norodom Sihamoni and seen by The Post on Thursday. Comprising nine

  • Where is Cambodia’s exit strategy that can save the economy?

    With the prospect of being slammed by a double whammy, the government is working on an economic recovery plan to deliver it from Covid-19 and the EU’s partial withdrawal of the Everything But Arms scheme in the next two to three years Cambodia is

  • Schools to be reopened in ‘three stages’

    With guidance from Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, is in the process of reopening schools in three stages. But no timeline has been set, ministry spokesperson Ros Soveacha said on Thursday. Soveacha said the first stage will be to