Two leaders from the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) are testing the patience of the country’s authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen, by raising expectations that both men are preparing for a return to politics ahead of the next election.
From his exile in France, interim CNRP leader Sam Rainsy has said he will make another attempt at entering Cambodia after a similar bid — including promises to lead protests across the country – failed late last year.
Meanwhile his party’s leader Kem Sokha, who is technically under house arrest on treason charges, has traveled out into the countryside to hand out humanitarian assistance to those affected by the annual monsoon flooding, and to attend religious ceremonies for the Pchum Ben festival earlier this month.
Sokha has previously been warned that leaving his home could put him in breach of the conditions laid down by the courts, which have allowed him to transfer from prison to his home in the capital Phnom Penh while his case is being tried. Those conditions were relaxed in November.
In storm-hit provinces, Kem Sokha distributed rice, raincoats and food and thanked those who have donated money and supplies for flood-affected communities. But Sokha’s activities have left former colleagues who defected from the CNRP unimpressed.
Former CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrath told the government-friendly Khmer Timesthat he believed Kem Sokha, who is being closely monitored by international human rights groups, had left the capital with a hidden agenda.
“Before, he had no suitable reason to gather people, but now he has reasons, such as attending the Pchum Ben festival and donating food to the people during the flood season,” he said.
“I think he wants to remind his [supporters] that he will return to the political arena in the near future,” Chanrath added. “He could test the reaction from people whether they still support him or not.”
That support is difficult to determine in a country that discourages opinion polls.
At the ballot box in 2013, the CNRP drew more than 45 percent of the vote, which shocked the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
The CNRP claimed the poll was rigged and refused to accept the result. As opposition supporters took to the streets, the party’s elected representatives declined to take their seats in parliament. Hun Sen subsequently alleged that the party was trying to foment a color revolution and justified a crackdown ahead of elections in 2018 on national security grounds.
CNRP politicians and supporters fled the country or were jailed while the party was dissolved by the courts and Hun Sen won all 125 seats in the National Assembly. The crackdown continues to this day amid ongoing spotfire protests.
Inside Cambodia, the situation is potentially volatile, with Sam Rainsy goading Hun Sen from abroad, particularly over the state of the economy, which has deteriorated amid an exodus of Western business and the recent withdrawal of some trade preferences by the European Union.
The COVID-19 pandemic tipped the country, like much of the world, into a deep recession described by Sam Rainsy as an “economic crisis” that made his return necessary.
“I will return to Cambodia to solve the economic crisis,” he recently told Radio Free Asia’s Khmer Service. “Hun Sen doesn’t know how to solve this crisis. He and his government don’t know how to do it.”
He said Cambodia’s problems could only be solved through when “power is returned to the people,” adding that he would ask the EU to restore the trade perks and says he’ll put an end to the crackdown on the CNRP, civil society groups and the independent media.
The next election is not until 2023 and the idea that either CNRP leader will be allowed to contest the poll is fanciful at best, but its leaders retain a proven ability to stir the pot from afar (or even from behind bars) and cast international doubts over the prime minister’s legitimacy.
Over the coming three years, that can only spell further trouble for their in-country supporters, who have long borne the brunt of their political agitation.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt