On Wednesday, the long-time leader of Cambodia’s opposition movement, Sam Rainsy, said via Twitter that he wouldn’t participate in mass protests planned in New York this weekend as Prime Minister Hun Sen visits to speak at the United Nations General Assembly.
Sam Rainsy, who has been in exile since late 2015, saw the opposition party he co-founded and for which he previously served as president, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), forcibly dissolved last November and barred from running in July’s general election. Without the CNRP on the ballot, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party easily won the election, taking all seats in the National Assembly. The international community called the election illegitimate and some financial sanctions have been imposed on Cambodian officials (more have been threatened).
The visit to New York this weekend provides Hun Sen an opportunity to defend the election, and his critics (of whom there are expected to be between 300 and 500) the chance to appeal for help from the United States and European Union. Rumors have circulated that Cambodia could lose its seat at the UN, though this is highly unlikely.
For weeks, supporters of the CNRP from North America have been planning to protest outside the UN offices in New York this weekend. Sam Rainsy, who started a U.S.-based group last year called the Cambodia National Rescue Movement, was a vocal advocate of the protests and played a part in raising interest in them. This makes his decision, made on Wednesday, to not participate all the more surprising. Having “work commitments elsewhere” was his reason given for not attending via Twitter.
Veasna Roeun, a Republican candidate seeking election to the U.S. House of Representatives this year, summed up most people’s reaction to Sam Rainsy’s announcement when he wrote on Twitter: “As someone who touts leadership and defiance, [I] thought you’d show up amongst other freedom lovers to support and embrace solidarity? This is your chance to meet a tyrant in the same arena with your people. Would you please reconsider to help give democracy a chance?”
Sam Rainsy told me by email at around midday on Friday, before posting the message on his Twitter site, that he is “attending a gathering of liberal parties worldwide in South Africa this weekend. The demonstration in NY will go well without me.”
Somehow, it seems quite off. The suspected reason is that the CNRP thinks its presence at the protests might heighten tensions at a time when it wants to enter negotiations with the CPP government, something that Hun Sen has dismissed. Foreign governments have also proposed such talks. The Phnom Penh Post quoted political analyst Hang Vitou: “The immediate and sudden cancellation of his protest plans reveals that Rainsy has changed strategy to bring about a calmer political situation…This is a political message from the opposition that it wants to lighten political tension and forge opportunities for negotiations or ask for more prisoners to be released.”
Yet it’s hard to see how a no-show will bring Hun Sen to the discussion table, if that’s the end goal. Concessions could be seen as weakness. No doubt, some protesters will be annoyed Sam Rainsy bailed on the event. And some in the UN may also question why the normally outspoken, and exiled, figure doesn’t want to take the fight to New York.
All of this comes at a difficult time for Sam Rainsy. Kem Sokha, CNRP president and co-founder, was recently released under house arrest after spending almost a year in jail, after being arrested last year on treason charges. Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, speaking of a well-known factional rivalry in the CNRP between loyalists of the two figures, commented this month that Kem Sokha’s “release poses some risk in creating a power struggle between him and Sam Rainsy, who wants to become the president of the party again.” It’s well worth reading Sar Kheng’s comments, made in a video posted on Facebook that was later deleted.
No doubt, the opposition and Sam Rainsy face considerable challenges, most without easy solutions or answers. Yet, there is a lingering feeling that dissidents, especially in times of hardship, should be on the streets with their supporters, not in conference halls.