Is Cambodia’s Chhay Thy Really a Sellout?

Recent Features


Is Cambodia’s Chhay Thy Really a Sellout?

A closer look at a development that is sparking controversy in Cambodia.

What would make a human rights activist, who has criticized the policies and actions of the ruling party for a number of years, suddenly decide to join that party? This is the question currently being asked in Cambodia.

On January 3, Chhay Thy, a provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc in Ratanakkiri province, announced that he will run for the post of commune chief in June’s elections for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Days later, the CPP confirmed that it would officially endorse him as the party’s candidate in Pate commune, O’yadaw district.

On the front page of Cambodia’s English-language newspapers most of last week, the coverage over this story has been a mixture of surprise and thinly-masked disapproval. On January 10, the Cambodia Daily, for example, went with a headline that claimed it was a “surprise defection.”

Granted, it is all too common for Cambodian politicians to ‘cross the floor’, as they say where I come from, or to swap party allegiances – or, in less appealing terms, to sells one’s principles for the offer of power and status.

“The ruling party has a long history of co-optation through offers of titles and positions… You catch more flies with honey than vinegar as they say, so they’re bringing the honey out,” Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, Los Angeles, and author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, told me.

Yet while this is true of politicians, it is less common for civil-society members to join the ruling party. Instead, most opt for the main opposition party, now the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), or attempt to form their own political parties.

So does Chhay Thy’s decision amount to defection? Ou Virak, founder of the Future Forum, thinks not. “I can’t call this a defection, unless you are assuming that human-rights critics of the government are automatically with the opposition,” he told me. “That, I think, is a wrong assumption [made] by all parties, including the government and the opposition.”

What’s more, he took a positive slant on Chhay Thy joining the CPP. “I am actually encouraging people to go into politics,” he said. “Politics is too important to just be left to politicians. I think activists need to get into the mix, seek power, and influence decision-making. [Politics] certainly isn’t for everyone, but anyone that can stomach it should consider.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Ou Virak on the first point and tentatively with the second. Civil society and the CNRP are not synonymous, however much each might oppose the policies and actions of the government. Though it is hard to see how Adhoc, in particular, has not been politicized. In May, four senior officers from the rights group and a former officer, then working for the National Election Committee, were imprisoned on bribery charges relating to a sex scandal involving CNRP vice-president Kem Sokha. The five remain in pretrial detention and the CNRP has taken it upon itself to campaign for their release.

What’s more, in the event that the CNRP does win a general election, the separation between the two will be essential for democracy; it will be civil society and human rights NGOs that will have to hold a CNRP government to account.

Now, the second point. Of course more people should go into politics and try to influence decision-making. But is there much purpose in doing this with the CPP? It is a 38-year-old, incredibly hierarchical and centralized party, which one might conclude that, despite promises to adopt a friendlier face and introduce meaningful reform in recent years, really cannot be changed from within.

The fact, however, that Chhay Thy decided upon the CPP as the party with which to pursue his political aspirations could reflect his lack of optimism in the CNRP, which he might have chosen. This, indeed, was the reason he told the Cambodia Daily on January 9: “I don’t like [the CNRP] because we have seen that this party has many internal disputes.”

The CNRP certainly is experiencing many problems and its work at the commune level is far from impressive, its focus being at the national level. However, Chhay Thy told the Phnom Penh Post, in an article published January 5, that he choose the CPP because the CNRP already has a strong candidate running for the commune position — Pate commune is the only one in Ratanakkiri currently controlled by the CNRP.

While these two comments are not mutually exclusive – he could think the CNRP is racked with internal disputes and that its candidate for Pate commune is strong – his pessimism in the CNRP doesn’t answer the question of why the CPP. He could have run for a smaller party or, in fact, as an independent candidate.

Perhaps Chhay Thy’s reasoning is based on the assumption that the CPP is a safe bet. It certainly is. In 2012, despite only receiving 61 percent of the popular vote, the CPP won 1,592 out of the 1,633 commune chiefs positions available, and 8,292 of the 11,459 commune councilors. Few predict any major difference when commune elections take place in June.

But it appears more idealistic than just a safe bet. Take three comments Chhay Thy recently made:

  • The Cambodia Daily, on January 4, quoted him as saying: “I have decided to join the CPP because we have seen this party make many reforms, and we think that their new reforms will be able to build the country and make it better for poor people.”
  • Days later, he expanded his reasoning to the same newspaper: “Journalists asked me why I joined the CPP. I told them I joined the CPP because this party has changed and reformed a lot, and this party has started to be concerned about the people’s living standards.”
  • And, on the same day, he made the following public statement at a conference: “I strongly appreciate the reforms of the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, especially reforms on land disputes, human rights problems, engagement during elections, and increasing land ownership.”

What we see is that Chhay Thy chose the CPP not because he distrusted the CNRP but because he trusted the CPP. Indeed, the Phnom Penh Post reported that this trust didn’t suddenly rise from thin air this month. “While an avid social media user, which he frequently used to issue criticisms,” the newspaper wrote, “Thy’s activity on Facebook has eased up on the dissent in recent months, even posting pictures with ruling party lawmaker Bou Lam and Provincial Governor Thong Savon.”

Are we to take him at his word that things are improving?  The Cambodia Daily interviewed Pen Bonnar, an Adhoc investigator who once worked for the organization in Ratanakkiri before moving to Phnom Penh due to years of threats. He told the newspaper that, in reality, little has changed in Ratanakkiri. “We have not seen any real reforms,” he said. A longer interview with Pen Bonnar can be read in the newspaper’s article dated January 10.

Two people can obviously hold differing opinions. But the facts do not seem to lean toward Chhay Thy’s thinking. In April, Radio Free Asia reported that timber smuggling was on the rise in Ratanakkiri province. And a deft but powerful statement was made by Phy Vanny, who will likely replace Chhay Thy as Adhoc’s provincial coordinator. He said that in the past the rights organization dealt mainly with land rights issue but the number of cases has recently declined. The reason? Many communities no longer have land to dispute.

“Only he can answer why he did it,” Sophal Ear told me, “but obviously going from threats of jail to elected official can’t hurt. Is it selling out or buying in? Maybe both. Perhaps he figured if you can’t beat them, join them.”

Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International, told the Cambodia Daily that he suspected the intimidation of Adhoc staff might have been a factor:

“What happened to the Adhoc staff… has some effect to the whole staff across the country… To some extent, they are afraid and would probably consider their whole strategy or approach of how they will continue conducting their projects across the country. So it does have an effect.”

What’s more, there is some concern as to how Chhay Thy’s decision will impact on the civil society he leaves behind. “His defection to CPP really affects the image of NGOs and their contribution to society,” Noan Sereiboth, a blogger and member of political discussion group Politikoffee, told me. “It makes the public not trust or doubt the work of NGOs. It kind of discredits NGOs work and reputation.”

Indeed, reputation was a concern of Adhoc. On January 8, Chhay Thy attended a press conference dressed in a CPP shirt yet told journalists that he would not vacate his post with the rights organization until the end of a month. The government’s own law on NGOs means workers in the field must remain politically neutral. So, without yet leaving his post but endorsing the CPP, the law was being broken — though the CPP didn’t seem to mind, since the law tends to be for those on the other side of the political divide. The following day, Adhoc called a meeting of its senior staff and, on January 10, terminated Chhay Thy’s contract with immediate effect.

So what are we left to think? Perhaps Chhay Thy does genuinely believe the CPP is changing and that progress can be made within the party. Or, perhaps, it is another example the government’s attempt to co-opt its critics — the old mobsters’ promise of silver or lead. Maybe Chhay Thy does believe in the CPP’s supposed reforms. Or maybe his euphonious words about the party are just the kind of thing needed to be said to curry favor.

In my opinion, it probably comes down to a simple human reaction. It must be incredibly difficult to be on the outside, constantly shouting about human rights violations and land seizures with the full knowledge that your opinions won’t be heeded by anyone in a position of power. It is only a natural reaction that, instead, one attempts another way of bringing about change. In the end, however, it might be a Pyrrhic victory: Chhay Thy may well win the commune election and become chief, but then he might find that such a position lacks of the power to enforce change. He might just come up against the immobility of the party that he has spent the last decade railing against