The Trouble With Cambodia’s Largest Opposition Party

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The Trouble With Cambodia’s Largest Opposition Party

Internal criticism needs to become the norm if it is to become a truly democratic alternative.

The Trouble With Cambodia’s Largest Opposition Party
Credit: Flickr/Maina Kiai

It started with a tweet: “Somebody watches too much movies on their free time. If you respect the audience you at least make your lies sound believable. #insult #sad.”

So wrote Kem Monovithya, deputy head of public affairs of Cambodia’s largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and daughter of the party’s vice-president, Kem Sokha.

Monovithya’s comments, expressed last month, came as a response to the proposal made by the CNRP’s president, Sam Rainsy, who has been in exile for the last year, that he would return to face imprisonment for the release of several CNRP politicians currently in jail. Days later, following the imprisoned CNRP politicians’ rejection of the so-called prisoner swap, and following Sam Rainsy’s criticism of China for encouraging human rights abuses in Cambodia, Monovithya took to Twitter again: “Cnrp official stance prioritizes Cambodia’s interests and regional stability. Not erratic positions based on wild theories/one’s moodiness.”

Monovithya’s tweets were a rare public display of division within the CNRP. Granted, they were sloppy and infantile and, perhaps, predicated on consanguinity politics. This was certainly the view of commentator Sophal Ear, who said that it was “eager-beaver children of the politicians wanting a promotion for papa.” Though, Ou Virak, president of the Future Forum think tank, told me that “frustration” was most likely what led her to make the remarks. “Most of the things she said were true,” he said, “though she shouldn’t have said it because they might be seen in the Cambodian context as potentially creating friction. But in most other countries it would be normal, not even news. But, in Cambodia, people have an obsession with unity and strength.”

Then, on October 28, came the comments of Prince Sisowath Thomico, a prominent CNRP official and the only member of the royal family who is openly aligned with the opposition. “I’m threatening to leave the CNRP if there are not reforms of the way it is run and organized,” he said. He added:

There are a number of issues that nobody dares to cope with… The main issue is division. Behind the unity of Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, everything else is divided and this is not acceptable. We need to find a way to unite if we are going to win the coming elections….We are not working as a party. We are working as individuals, which is not the way to run a party, especially if we want to rule the country… As long as it remains as it is, there is no chance for the CNRP to win the next election.

Herein lies the problem of the CNRP: it is a party deeply divided yet, at the same time, dominated by its two leaders. Everybody knows that there are factions within the CNRP. The party only came about in 2012 by an alliance between Sam Rainsy’s humbly-titled Sam Rainsy Party and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party. The factions remain divided between these two camps and, as is Cambodian politics, between loyalty to the two individuals.

“The party is always in crisis,” Ou Virak told the Cambodia Daily. “It’s a marriage of convenience, of necessity, and it’s not yet a strong party. These things that have now been made public had always been there since the day the party was created, so it doesn’t change much.” He went on to say that “if Sam Rainsy responds by being a man who cannot accept criticism, then this is not the leader that anybody hoped for… If he responds by strengthening the party system and allows some different opinions and approaches while keeping the common vision alive, then I think that could only strengthen the party in the long run.”

But give ear to what the CNRP’s spokesman Yim Sovann, a long-time ally of Sam Rainsy, dating back to 1993, had to say about Monovithya’s comments:

We no more pay to attention to what she says… I am officially appointed as the party spokesman and I am the one who speaks to the media.

I am not sure if I was the only person dismayed (though not surprised) by this. For a self-described democratic party, that wants to bring real democracy to a country that hasn’t known it, these 28 words might be all one really needs to know about its inner workings.

Let’s examine these two sentences more closely. Monovithya is the party’s deputy public affairs head and a member of its standing committee, so one can assume that not only should she be entitled to her own opinions, but that they might also be listened to. If not, and her position is either not important or she is not qualified to speak about politics (as the implication seems to be) then why has the party that opposes nepotism given such a position to the vice-president’s daughter? But what Yim Sovann appears to be saying is that because she had the audacity to voice an opinion critical of the party’s leader, her opinions are no longer valid. Is this the way of a democratic party? Consider the implication: if someone of her rank is to be excluded because she is critical of the padron, what does it mean for those lower down? Is this not a threat to all CNRP members to keep one’s opinion to oneself and fall in line?

Now, the second sentence. By implication, Yim Sovann holds the monopoly of public comment. One can only assume that he missed out a key word: the only one who speaks to the media. And here’s the crux: if Yim Sovann, as he says so himself, is the “officially appointed” party spokesman and “the one who speaks to the media,” then his words must be taken at face value and understood to be the party line. If not, then the CNRP should reconsider his position.

Of course, the party might well say it is not the time for internal squabbles; it is under attack from the government, and local elections are due to take place next year and general election in 2018. But, then again, when has the opposition not been under pressure? More to the point, Prince Thomico is correct is saying that without unity, the CNRP faces an uphill slog to win the 2018 election. But the question is how unity is to be found, and at what cost.

Unity can only really be fostered through soft or hard tactics, or, rather, from the bottom-up or top-down. The soft, bottom-up approach would be agreement on common goals and a common vision. This requires debate, and debate requires differing opinions (and often things that people don’t want to hear). For those of us who still value that now antiquated word, dialectic, we believe that through arguments and disputes come not only truth but a coherent ideology, or, on the smaller scale, a coherent party platform. Internal debate, therefore, is essential for any political party. Not everyone can be singing by the same tune if debates are not held as to which tune should be sung.

But the CNRP doesn’t operate by these means. It has an almost obsession with consensus, but consensus from the top-down. Indeed, it was Sam Rainsy’s decision not to return, with the implications for the party, that led Prince Thomico to say that “it’s not up to Sam Rainsy to decide by himself” if he should return, since “he’s the president of the party, so it is the party that has to decide whether Sam Rainsy comes back or not.” The CNRP’s standing committee had unanimously supported the decision last year, but Prince Thomico said he would push for another vote when the standing committee met at the beginning of November. No such vote took place.

The fact is the CNRP’s structure leans heavily towards the individual. Take funding as an example. “Donations usually don’t go to the party but to individuals. That’s why politicians usually try to make trips abroad,” Ou Virak told me. “If you change the formula, so that all donations go to the party, and donations are disclosed, you’ll change a lot. But they won’t, but the people who benefit the most are the two leaders who get the most.”

As another example, take the comments made by Sam Rainsy earlier this month. In his absence, Kem Sohka is effectively the party’s acting president and, one would assume that in the event Sam Rainsy isn’t pardoned and cannot return in 2018, the prime ministerial candidate for the CNRP. Yet, speaking to the Cambodia Daily, Sam Rainsy denoted himself as the “only legitimate competitor against Hun Sen,” as the newspaper put it, before quoting him: “Can you imagine one boxer only on a boxing ring who would be pretending to win a match without facing his only real challenger?”

Take this supercilious comment at face value. First, Kem Sohka would be a false challenger to Hun Sen. Second, Cambodian politics is actually a battle between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, and, since no other person could compete, not between the CPP and the CNRP. If the party was strong by itself and its promise to the people popular, it wouldn’t matter who leads. Lee Morgenbesser, a research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University, opined that “given how centralized leadership is within the CNRP, Rainsy’s exile leaves few alternatives that are satisfiable to both factions. In any case, I don’t think Rainsy will tolerate Sokha lead[ing] the opposition into the next election.”

Without the mechanisms in place for criticism to be voiced, or debated internally, it forces the disaffected to find other avenues for expression. This is what, most likely, drove Monovithya and Prince Thomico to make their comments. A more pertinent question also arises: What is the unhappy party member to do if they cannot comment from within? Eight new political parties have formed in Cambodia since the beginning of 2015, some started by former CNRP faithful. The cynic might say they are the work of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), out to divide the opposition vote.

Yet, after speaking to a number of the leaders of the these parties, there appears to be genuine disaffection with the CNRP. Mam Sanando, an independent journalist and director of Beehive radio station, who relaunched his Beehive Social Democratic Party last year, was a staunch CNRP supporter in the 2013 election. But, he told me, “CNRP’s supporters, like myself, feel disappointed because the party has not followed what they promised. We no longer feel the CNRP represents the people’s wishes.”

Lak Sopheap, who co-founded the Khmer Solidarity Party, had been a member of the opposition since joining Sam Rainy’s first political party, the Khmer National Party, in 1995. By 2014, she had become Kem Sokha’s personal assistant but was expelled in December 2014 after she alleged that Kem Sokha had told her Sam Rainsy had embezzled $20 million for party funds. “I couldn’t stay with the CNRP,” she told me. “We were always under the umbrella of the two leaders. They discriminate against others and only trust their inner circle. I feel they never think about national interests, just their own power.” By allowing internal debate, it might prevent members who feel silenced and unimportant from leaving.

On November 1, a slight step in the right direction was taken, however, when the party’s 125-member standing committee approved its draft policy manifesto. Though little is known about its contents, one can hope that it will give the CNRP the necessary substance going into the next two years. It might also provide the party with a sense of unity, this time on policies rather than on individuals. Still, this doesn’t mean that internal debate isn’t important, nor criticisms to be swept under the proverbial carpet. Despite the manifesto, the question of Sam Rainsy’s return is still pertinent and will remain so until he does. Meanwhile, the party’s leadership will be called into question since neither Sam Rainsy or Kem Sokha are allowed to travel around the country (and there is no indication that someone else is able, or willing, to take up the mantle of leadership).

More to the point, if the CNRP is a democratic party, as it says it is (and if it is to run Cambodia in a democratic way, as it says it will) then internal criticism must become the norm. If not, it will continue to be led by the whim of a few individuals. And, if not, should it win the 2018 election and form the government, would it not then go down the same route as the current administration of seeing every critique as either something divisive or treasonous? If the CNRP cannot get used to criticism when in opposition, it will surely struggle to do so once in a position of power.