This week, three sets of recordings were posted on Facebook purported to be phone calls between deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha and alleged mistresses. Yesterday, 105 university students issued a petition to the Cambodia National Rescue Party demanding Sokha respond to the allegations, which he has said he will not do. Audrey Wilson spoke with political analyst Ou Virak about mudslinging in Cambodia and its ramifications
Many observers labelled accusations that Kem Sokha had a mistress and love child before the 2013 elections as a ruling-party smear campaign. What effect do you think the event had on the election?
Well, the public was already kind of annoyed [with] the ruling party. There was a lot of frustration all around, and the fact that these kinds of accusations emerged and the ruling party was involved increased that. I thought they would have learned their lesson. The ruling party was trying to divert the attention from discussions of reform, and that was really frustrating for the people. I think there was some backlash – many of the young people were annoyed by it, and I think that’s one of the reasons they came to rally. The whole story was a bit difficult to believe. There was supposedly a photo of them at Angkor Wat. Out of all of the places you would take a photo with your mistress, why in front of the walkway at Angkor Wat?
Do you think the fact that the new allegations have emerged on social media illustrates a change in this kind of political expression in Cambodia?
No. It doesn’t change much – that’s politics. These sorts of things just limit the ability to debate policy, and that’s going to frustrate the public even more, especially the youth population, who are just more desperate to see reform. The young people expect a lot more from their politicians – it won’t go over well with them.
Why would opponents of Kem Sokha see the present moment as opportune for this sort of smear campaign?
I suspect someone at low ranks just wanted to do some things and earn some points. It is puzzling why anyone at the top would allow such things. If the CPP is actually behind it, it wouldn’t make any strategic sense. Of course, there are a lot of things that have emerged about Kem Sokha in the past. He refrained from endorsing the [July 2015] deal to institute the “culture of dialogue”, and Hun Sen was not happy. Kem Sokha as a target is not too surprising.
Why do you think a sex scandal would be used as a smear campaign in a country where male infidelity is often tacitly accepted?
People in Cambodia think that having a mistress is normal. I don’t know if this was actually planned by the CPP or their people – it just doesn’t make any sense. Look at the old guys. There are too many skeletons.
What happens now?
The question is: why would Kem Sokha respond? Some people say he should take it to court. To what court? Nobody has any faith in the Cambodian court system. The only viable option is for Kem Sokha to stay quiet.
Interview edited for length and clarity.