The Debate | Opinion

Sam Rainsy: Cambodia’s Ruling Party Is More Divided Than the Public Knows

The opposition leader argues that Hun Sen is using Kem Sokha’s trial to bolster his authority within the ruling party.

By Sam Rainsy for
Sam Rainsy: Cambodia’s Ruling Party Is More Divided Than the Public Knows

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, shakes hands with the main opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, left, of Cambodia National Rescue Party, as Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, center, smiles after their meeting in Senate headquarters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, July 22, 2014.

Credit: AP Photo/Heng Sinith

Inside Cambodia’s ruling party, the CPP, there is never a guarantee of consensus amid the autocratic power and nepotism of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The party’s more moderate elements, represented by the Minister of the Interior and Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng – even though he publicly denies any divergence with the prime minister – do not systematically seek confrontation with the opposition and would even favor an understanding with the CNRP to consolidate a fragile democratic system. This more conciliatory position contradicts that of Hun Sen who decided on, and wants to maintain, the dissolution of the CNRP, the only opposition party, which he sees as a threat to his regime.

The CNRP scored 44 percent in the legislative elections of 2013, as in the commune elections of 2017, despite numerous irregularities in favor of the ruling party.

The danger for Hun Sen will be even greater if the moderate elements of the CPP, led by Sar Kheng, make common cause with the united democratic opposition that the CNRP represents to liberalize the regime, currently in the hands of a single, increasingly paranoid man.

I can now reveal the real reason for the failure of my first attempt to return to Cambodia on November 16, 2015 (my most recent attempt on November 9, 2019 has been well publicized).

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In the absence of any unusual political tension, I had left Cambodia on November 6, 2015 for a working visit to Mongolia, Japan, and South Korea. Contrary to the reports of some ill-informed journalists, I did not “flee” in the face of any particular threat.

On November 16, 2015 I was scheduled to return to Phnom Penh by an evening commercial flight back from Seoul, where I was paying a three-day visit to Cambodian workers in South Korea. In the previous days Hun Sen had issued threats against me, apparently to warn me against my scheduled coming back, but I made it clear that those threats would not affect my plan. But suddenly there were new dramatic developments on the morning of the very day of my scheduled return from South Korea. In Phnom Penh, the CPP-controlled National Assembly decided to lift my parliamentary immunity and the Court, under the orders of Hun Sen, immediately issued an arrest warrant against me.

Shortly after, I was contacted by the U.S. ambassador in Phnom Penh, William Heidt, who confidentially conveyed to me a message from Sar Kheng, who apparently did not agree with Hun Sen’s treatment of me. Sar Kheng begged me not to come back that night because the situation would get “out of control” and he needed some time to find a compromise within the CPP so as to ensure my smooth and safe return. Through Ambassador Heidt I informed Sar Kheng that I accepted his proposal to delay my return by a few days. Ambassador Heidt responded to me by email saying that the Sar Kheng’s side “seemed relieved to receive this information.”

This was the hitherto untold reason why I decided not to catch that November 16, 2015 evening flight from Seoul in order to allow Sar Kheng and the U.S. ambassador to discreetly sort out the situation. I have not exposed the background of my decision because it involved sensitive political and diplomatic considerations. But this information can now be “declassified” in order to better understand subsequent developments and draw appropriate strategies.

During my exile, which is now entering its fifth year, political tension in Cambodia has continuously increased. In February 2017, I chose to resign as leader of the CNRP to avoid the dissolution of my party after Hun Sen pushed through a series of laws specifically targeting me, by forbidding a convict – I had accumulated numerous politically motivated convictions – to lead a political party, with the punishment being dissolution. This could only refer to the CNRP, which, after its electoral breakthrough in 2013, was the only parliamentary opposition party.

In September 2017, Kem Sokha, who replaced me as CNRP leader, was brutally arrested and imprisoned. The accusation of treason made against him served as a pretext for Hun Sen to finally dissolve the CNRP in November 2017. This dissolution and the return to a single-party system signalled a severe crackdown on civil society, in particular human rights organizations, unions, and any media that showed signs of independence. The trial of Kem Sokha for “collusion with foreign countries and agents” and “treason” started on January 15, 2020.

One of the poorly understood reasons for this long crackdown is the position of Hun Sen within the CPP and his fear that the more moderate elements within the ruling party will openly contest his increasingly arbitrary and personal decisions. An example is his wish to prepare his son Hun Manet to replace him one day at the head of both party and country. Another more recent and dangerous choice by Hun Sen is the strategic alliance that he has concluded with China, which has become an expansionist, aggressive power that does not respect international law. The corollary of this alliance is a crudely anti-American and anti-Western policy from a Cambodia that has become a vassal state of China.

If the unity of the CPP is threatened, the power wielded by Hun Sen is thrown into question. Hun Sen can’t maintain the unity of the CPP under his authority other than by provoking and sustaining a permanent war against a real or imaginary enemy, which can be internal, external, or both. In the last three years, the designated enemies have been the CNRP and the Americans, accused of supporting the opposition. Only through the permanent tension that such a war generates can Hun Sen impose CPP unity by threatening reprisals for “treason” against all those among his colleagues and possible rivals who would be tempted to contest even his most debatable decisions. My revelations on the tensions within the CPP in November 2015 suggest that Sar Kheng, despite appearances and the blandness of his declarations, must be the person Hun Sen watches the most closely.

The current trial of Kem Sokha for “treason” due to his alleged collaboration with the United States is not just an act of repression against the opposition, but also a threat to more conciliatory figures within the ruling party itself. The goal is to force them to burn all bridges with the CNRP and to dissuade them from contesting Hun Sen’s pro-Chinese and anti-American policies.

Sam Rainsy is acting president of the CNRP.