What’s Next for Cambodia’s Sam Rainsy?

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What’s Next for Cambodia’s Sam Rainsy?

A look at what may follow the opposition leader’s resignation.

After almost two decades as the man at the center of Cambodian opposition politics, Sam Rainsy resigned this weekend as president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). This came as the Cambodian government under Prime Minister Hun Sen makes plan to introduce a new law that would dissolve political parties if their leaders are convicted of domestic crimes. Sam Rainsy has numerous defamation lawsuits to his name, and many still pending trial. He has been in exile in France since late 2015.

“They are attempting to dissolve our party, and if our party is dissolved, we cannot join the election and the election will have no meaning, and we will lose an historic opportunity to bring change to the Khmer people,” he told colleagues via Skype on Sunday. “We have to dare to sacrifice everything to reach our goal… What do we want? We want the elections, because we want change through elections.”

The CNRP will now be led by Kem Sokha, its formal vice-president, as it heads into June’s commune election and next year’s general election. The party announced on the weekend that it would decide a new leadership at its next congress, which is slated to take place early next year but might be held sooner.

News of Sam Rainsy’s resignation has already triggered a number of articles asking how the CNRP will cope without him. Most agree that it may take some toll on the party’s support and much work needs to be done to explain his decision to voters.

Senior CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, however, told local media this week that Sam Rainsy’s resignation has actually reinvigorated the opposition and its activists, and put the “fire” back into the “movement for change.” Indeed, there has seldom been a time when the CNRP did not have its proverbial back against the wall. It is accustomed to schoolyard bully tactics. And despite the more frequent use of adjectives like “beleaguered” and “embattled” in newspapers in recent months, there is scant evidence to suggest support in the party is waning among the Cambodian public. In fact, the opposite is probably true.

Moreover, the Sam Rainsy’s task in winning over voters ahead of 2018’s crucial election is arguably less important than Kem Sokha’s role, as I pointed out in the Asia Times this week:

Even without Sam Rainsy as its figurehead, the CNRP is still expected to carry the urban and youth demographics that voted overwhelmingly for the party in 2013. Kem Sokha is believed to have stronger support than Sam Rainsy in rural areas, a vote the party must win if it hopes to take power in 2018

However, the Cambodia Daily reported on Monday that Sam Rainsy’s resignation might only be a short reprieve for the CNRP and possibly not enough to save it from dissolution.  Despite a royal pardon for Kem Sokha being granted in December, as requested by Prime Minister Hun Sen, investigations into his “prostitution” case are still ongoing and could resurface if the government wants them to.

The opposition party will also have to manage its own internal divisions, which became apparent last year. The CNRP was formed in 2012 as a merger between the Sam Rainsy Party and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party. Years on, there are still divisions between members from each of these two groups, commentators say. For this reason, the two leading positions of the party will need to be divided between Kem Sokha and an ally of Sam Rainsy.

But what does this mean for Sam Rainsy himself? The resignation is likely to improve his reputation, which was undermined in November 2015 when he refused to return to Cambodia to avoid a possible prison sentence related to a year-old defamation charge that was reanimated. Days before his announcement that he would not come back to Cambodia, he told supporters that he would return “even if I die.”

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) responded by calling him a “coward,” as the party’s spokesman Sok Eysan phrased it, and a number of Cambodians felt he had betrayed his principles by avoiding conflict with the Hun Sen government. Commentators say his decision to stand down as the CNRP’s president, finally putting the party ahead of himself, will be viewed sympathetically and might go some way to restoring his reputation among those who were disappointed by his decision in 2015.

The question that Sam Rainsy now has to answer is what to do post-CNRP. It is almost certain that he will not try to return to Cambodia, so will remain in exile in France for the foreseeable future. Sereiboth Noan, a blogger and member of political discussion group Politikoffee, said that he thinks the former opposition leader should try to keep a low profile in order to calm political tensions.

“He should provide constructive ideas to the party as a citizen, rather than confronting Prime Minister Hun Sen,” he said. “He should provide solutions rather than attacking [the government].”

On Monday, in an interview with the Cambodia Daily, Sam Rainsy said that he “would fully remove himself from all roles within the party, including fundraising from abroad,” as the newspaper put it. But it is hard to believe that he will distance himself from either the national debate or the CNRP.  Indeed, while he might have formally resigned, his utterances will still be viewed by many Cambodians as the views of the opposition party. He is likely to continue to play an active role in the party as “a huge shadow behind the scenes,” Ou Virak, head of the Phnom Penh-based think-tank Future Forum, told me.

This was denied by the former leader, who said in the aforementioned interview with the Cambodia Daily that he has no intention of pulling any strings from afar. He added that the respite from politics will allow him to elaborate on his “vision for Cambodia, and that “my ideas, my plans, my vision will be available for everybody, for every party. I would be happy whoever implements my ideas if they are good for the country and in my view they are good for the country.”

Any attempt, however, to extract himself from the heat of Cambodian politics will be difficult. He is already embroiled in a number of highly-sensitive cases. He stated only last week that he wants to sue Hun Sen in the International Criminal Court over an alleged failed plan to militarize the Thai border during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Radio Free Asia described it thusly:

Known as K5, the plan has been described as an attempt to build a kind of “Berlin Wall” on the Thai border in an effort to prevent the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge and other guerillas from reestablishing their bases and infiltrating Cambodia after their defeat by the Vietnamese in 1979.

While K5 was never completed, it’s estimated that up to a million Cambodian workers were pressed into duty as slave laborers to clear the land for the proposed fortifications.

Also, it was reported on Monday that a U.S. court will allow Sam Rainsy to file a subpoena to the energy company Chevron in order to retrieve surveillance footage of the murder of Kem Ley, a political commentator who was shot dead at a Caltex gas station in Phnom Penh in July (Caltex is operated by Chevron). Sam Rainsy has described the murder as “state-sponsored terrorism.” The government has yet to release the footage and the trial of the man arrested for the crime is set to begin next month. Prime Minister Hun Sen recently announced his intention to sue the commentator Kim Sok over his comments linking the government to the murder.

Given Sam Rainsy’s ongoing campaigns against Hun Sen, and the fact that he has been active in politics since the early 1990s, it is unlikely that his resignation will lead to an early retirement. “It is not an end of an era,” Sam Rainsy said this week. On the one hand, being out of the CNRP might allow him to become more verbose when criticizing the government. He had to couch his comments, to a certain extent, in the past to avoid angering Hun Sen too much. Now he can say whatever he wants without the party being legally affected. Still, it is almost certain that the Prime Minister will still take Sam Rainsy’s comments as being reflective of the opposition party’s stance. And Hun Sen has already shown he is willing to twist the law to his own desires.

In any case, should the CNRP win the 2018 general election, one can expect Sam Rainsy’s jubilant return to Cambodia.