Thirteen thousand kilometres from home and eight months after the fact, opposition leader Kem Sokha finally gave voice to what many had suspected all along – that the political deal brokered last July with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP had been a hard pill to swallow.
Analysts have long speculated that Sokha – often painted as the hardliner in the political marriage that formed the CNRP – was upset with the agreement that saw the CNRP join parliament in exchange for an electoral system overhaul. But he has until now restrained himself from publicly discussing internal rifts over the decision.
He finally spoke out on the weekend to supporters in the opposition donor base of Long Beach, California, the so-called “Cambodian capital” of the United States, telling them he was “not content” with the July 22 deal, which paved the way for two controversial election-related laws that will be imminently passed.
“Speaking truthfully, I was not happy with the results of the negotiation, but I respected the principles of [the CNRP] and the stance of [the CNRP], which had to accept [a deal] to move forward to resolve problems,” Sokha said.
“So [we] received a very short agreement that was not clear and not detailed, [meaning] this agreement could be interpreted in many ways.”
He explained that internal party discussions at the time over whether the CNRP should end its nearly yearlong boycott of parliament had been “very tense”.
But Sokha added that while he knew the CPP would dominate the CNRP numerically in the National Assembly if it ended its boycott, he recognised it was more important that the CNRP’s leadership remained united until the 2018 poll.
“The ruling party is afraid of our merger, and if we have different ideas and split because of such problems, we would lose before the fight,” he said. “I agreed to be patient to continue this merger … and not to fall for the tricks of the dictators.”
The CNRP was formed in 2012 after a merger between Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party and the Sam Rainsy Party.
CNRP leader Sam Rainsy yesterday chalked up disagreements within the party to its positive democratic culture and said he did not have a problem with Sokha “exposing a bit of what is history now”.
“At the very beginning, it was a difficult decision to make, and each of us did not necessarily have the same appreciation,” he said.
“But what is important is that in the end, we come to the same conclusion and we made a decision on behalf of the party.”
Rainsy admitted that Sokha’s message delivered to US-based supporters was different to what he had been saying in Cambodia, but he said it was not linked to the fact that election reform negotiations with the CPP had recently been concluded.
“In the US, people speak more openly, they don’t feel the same constraints as in Cambodia, so I understand that Kem Sokha had to respond to them in a more candid manner,” Rainsy said.
“So for us, the leadership of the party, we remain in the same mood.”
Rainsy said he understood Sokha’s desire to speak out but said it would be “premature” for him to also judge last July’s agreement as having been too vague.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan yesterday mocked Sokha’s delayed response to a deal that was signed eight months ago.
“Whether he is happy or not is his business, because the party president [Rainsy] and he already signed it. If he is unhappy now, it means that he reluctantly signed it then,” he said.
Echoing a line often espoused by the ruling party, Eysan also predicted that divisions between Rainsy and Sokha’s wings of the party would soon cause it to implode.
But Ok Serei Sopheak, an independent political analyst, said that on the contrary, the opposition appeared to have reached “a certain level of political maturity”, as evidenced by Sokha having been able to hold his tongue until election reform talks were completed.
However, now, he continued, the party recognises it must defend itself against supporters who accuse it of having acquiesced to the CPP.
“This is the main message [from Sokha] – ‘we have had a lot of difficulty dealing with the CPP but we will maintain the merger. Sam Rainsy and I will be patient and stick together until the election’,” Serei Sopheak said.
He added, however, that Sokha’s decision to break his silence outside Cambodia was wise.
“If you say this in Cambodia, it’s like you are saying in the house of the CPP that you don’t agree with them on whatever negotiations you made in the past,” he said.
“I think the leadership of CPP will consider this moderation; you say a true thing but you are considerate enough not to say it out loud inside Cambodia.”