Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy has quit his post as an opposition crackdown launched by Prime Minister Hun Sen and members of his government gains momentum ahead of commune elections.
A barrage of lawsuits was accompanied with a warning from Hun Sen, who has ruled since 1985, that laws would be passed in the National Assembly banning people with criminal convictions from leading a political party. That, for Sam Rainsy, was too much.
“I remain the symbol and embody the spirit of resistance to the autocratic and corrupt Hun Sen regime, and this is what matters in the minds of the Khmer people,” Sam Rainsy said. “In all the circumstances I continue to cherish and to uphold the CNRP’s ideals in my heart.”
Two years ago, at the end of long-running street protests amid allegations of widespread cheating at the 2013 election, the leader of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) was sentenced to jail for a defamation suit which had languished unnoticed for years.
He then fled into self-imposed exile in France and has since been sentenced to a further five years imprisonment for a Facebook post. The prime minister has also lodged a $1 million defamation suit and says he will take and auction off CNRP headquarters, assuming, of course, that he wins.
“If I was still the president, and the party gets dissolved, is there a benefit? It only damages our interests, the party’s interests and the nation’s interest,” Sam Rainsy said, explaining the reasons behind his resignation.
“We want the election. We want changes through the election. But they want to dissolve our party, and if it is dissolved, our party cannot compete and the election is meaningless. Then we lose a historical opportunity to bring the changes that Cambodian people want.”
The CNRP said party vice president Kem Sokha will assume control of the opposition with commune elections due on June 4. Communes are clusters of villages, and the results will provide the best indicator yet for how both parties can expect to perform at general elections in July next year.
Hun Sen’s CPP achieved only a sharply reduced majority in the National Assembly at the 2013 poll after Cambodia’s post-war baby boomers ignored pleas for support and promises of security from the ruling party, which has led this country with Hun Sen at the helm for over three decades.
Sources close to the CPP say early in-house surveys indicate a further substantial swing against the government is now being anticipated by Hun Sen and the CPP at the commune elections.
“I’ve heard lots of numbers being said in terms percentage losses, ranging from 10 to more than 20 percent,” one observer with close ties to the CPP told The Diplomat.
Those figures should hearten the CNRP, whose support for Sam Rainsy rarely wavered despite his losses at the last four general elections and his controversial decision to flee into exile in France while leaving behind his supporters, many of whom were jailed for dissent.
His resignation also bodes well for Kem Sokha, who could become the next prime minister of Cambodia should the opposition win the next election.
Though Kem Sokha’s international profile is substantially lower than that of Sam Rainsy, his popularity is strong in the countryside. That’s a direct challenge to Hun Sen, who has always depended upon the rural vote for victory.
Corruption, land grabbing, and access to health are major concerns among older rural voters. These are issues that the CPP has persistently struggled to come to terms with, despite a succession of impressive wins at the ballot box.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt