Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha’s Divorce of Necessity in Cambodia

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Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha’s Divorce of Necessity in Cambodia

The split between the country’s two most prominent opposition leaders has been five years in the making.

Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha’s Divorce of Necessity in Cambodia

Cambodian opposition politicians Kem Sokha (left) and Sam Rainsy speak at a campaign rally in Kampong Cham, Cambodia, on July 26, 2013.

Credit: Sebastian Strangio

As with many couples, the political divorce between Cambodia’s opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha has been a long, drawn-out process. Many news reports would have it that Sokha this week formally announced their separation. “Sam Rainsy and I are done. I would like to inform you that this is true. It’s no longer ‘Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha as one’,” he reportedly told a courtroom on June 15, the audio of which was conveniently published by the pro-government Fresh News. Sokha was speaking during his ongoing trial for treason, which has dragged on since 2017. Rainsy and Sokha formed the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2012 but it was forcibly dissolved five years later on spurious charges of plotting a U.S.-backed coup.

What was Sokha supposed to say? Since 2017, he has publicly distanced himself on several occasions from Rainsy’s more egregious comments. As Sokha said earlier this month, his court case has become more about his relationship with Rainsy than the allegations he committed treason. Did anyone think that Sokha would show up at his trial and profess undying loyalty to a political ally who has numerous (trumped-up) criminal convictions to his name? Confessing loyalty to Rainsy would be foolhardy. For his part, Rainsy reckons it’s something of a ploy. “We must look at the circumstance. Is he speaking his mind or is he being pressured?” he told Radio Free Asia this week. “Kem Sokha is a hostage of [Prime Minister] Hun Sen. He can’t say what he wants. Hun Sen has threatened Kem Sokha that he will send him back to prison.”

Yet it isn’t all a ploy. The breakdown of relations between the pair appears genuine, and it really started last year when Sam Rainsy’s old Candlelight Party resumed its activities ahead of this month’s local elections. According to Sokha, the resumption of the party effectively ended the CNRP, which was formed in 2012 by “merging” Rainsy and Sokha’s respective parties. On November 28, Sokha posted on his Facebook page: “The actions prove that Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha are not united as one person because all of these activities have no support from me nor are they my positions.”

Sokha’s daughters came out to publicly accuse Rainsy of being “a narcissistic, abusive, gaslighting, sociopathic partner to Kem Sokha.” They also accused him of “racism” and “sexism.” (Verbal attacks have also been launched by Sokha’s claqueurs on other CNRP grandees who are perceived as being in Rainsy’s camp.) All this would be excessive if it was a mere act by Sokha to gain clemency from the courts. “He [Sam Rainsy] led the Candlelight Party to join the [commune] election and in doing so, he left us and attacked me. I want to clarify this during the trial,” Sokha said this week. He went on: “I didn’t support him. I asked my supporters not to join. If I were granted political rights by the judge, I would have held a press conference to explain this.”

But this day was always coming. It has been the problem at the heart of the CNRP since the day it was dissolved. For years, the banned party dragged itself along on the premise that one day Hun Sen would give in and allow it to return to politics, perhaps because of pressure from Western democracies. But that was never going to happen. Rainsy isn’t going to be allowed to return to Cambodia; that has been obvious since Hun Sen foiled his attempts to do so in 2019. (He has been in exile since late 2015.) Neither is Hun Sen going to allow Sokha to walk free if he thinks Sokha will jump straight back into bed with Rainsy.

Instead, something had to budge. Between 2017 and mid-2021 no one wanted to admit this. One budge could have stemmed from Sokha’s court case. Had it been concluded earlier, the CNRP would have then been able to respond. Perhaps Sokha would have been jailed. In which case, there would have been no need for a formal break with Rainsy. Both would have had to go their own ways. Or, Sokha might have accepted a royal pardon in return for either quitting politics or presiding over a reformed CNRP. In the latter eventuality, Sokha would have been forced to cut Rainsy loose; Hun Sen would never permit Sokha to lead a reformed CNRP in which Rainsy has a position. And he probably would have felt compelled to publicly announce his separation from Rainsy. (This remains a possibility.)

The other way things would budge, which has now happened, was for Rainsy’s own party to resume activities and thereby cut Sokha off. Of course, the Candlelight Party is not officially linked to Rainsy, although most voters probably believe he would automatically return as its leader if it were possible. And, of course, this would bring extra pressure upon Sokha during his trial. The Candlelight Party won 22 percent of the popular vote and became Cambodia’s second-largest party at the local election held on June 5.

Put differently, there was no realistic way in which the “unity” between Rainsy and Sokha could be maintained unless they persevered with the hopeless, wait-and-see approach that depended on blind faith that one day Hun Sen would allow the CNRP to return to politics in its pre-dissolution form.

The split marks the an end of an era. But the CNRP was always an experiment – and a short one at that. Never in Cambodian history had the two largest opposition parties agreed to “merge.” Never had two opposition icons agreed to share power. And the CNRP wasn’t a love marriage between the two; it always was a marriage of necessity. Just look back at some of the leaked U.S. cables from the late 2000s to see how much animosity they and their respective camps had for each other. It took them between 2008 and 2012 to agree to form a joint party.  They couldn’t agree even to an alliance before the 2008 general election.

The CNRP’s achievements weren’t really the result of practical cooperation between the pair. The party, after all, was marred by divisions between their camps since its formation. There were only 27 months in which Rainsy and Sokha were actually together in Cambodia leading the CNRP. Rainsy wasn’t in-country for the 2017 local elections and only returned days before the 2013 general election. The last time both politicians met in person was in 2016 in Manila, I believe. What mattered most was the moral and charismatic leadership both brought to the party.

Is this now the end of the CNRP? Yes. Is this now the end of Rainsy and Sokha’s political fraternity? Not necessarily. The chance of a meaningful opposition party being allowed a foothold in Cambodian politics is slim. Hun Sen’s ruling party is now suing Son Chhay, the Candlelight Party’s vice president, for $1 million in compensation for comments he made questioning the fairness the election. Chhay has left the country for Australia. Next, the government could move to dissolve the party over its apparent links to Rainsy. What happens to Sokha is up in the air. Some pundits reckon he will get a royal pardon, although it’s fifty-fifty whether he will be allowed to return to politics, perhaps as head of a reconstructed Human Rights Party (HRP).

Nonetheless, one scenario sees politics returning to the status quo ante before the CNRP was formed in 2012. Rainsy could continue as the spiritual leader of the Candlelight Party, and Sokha could permit the restarting of his HRP without taking any formal leadership position for himself. Nothing, except government repression, would stop them from agreeing to an informal alliance – a “National Rescue Alliance,” if you will. After all, alliances in Cambodian politics are common. It was the Alliance of Democrats between the Sam Rainsy Party and Funcinpec in the late 1990s. The SRP and HRP agreed to an alliance, the Democratic Movement for Change, in 2009. They could do the same in 2023 and 2028. Both parties could agree not to field candidates in seats where the other party is strongest. Their diasporic supporters could be instructed to evenly distribute donations. Both parties could campaign on similar platforms, making it known to voters that they would form a post-election coalition if they were successful. They don’t have to like each other; such an alliance would, again, be one of necessity, not affection.

Perhaps that scenario is an overly optimistic one. Hun Sen’s government barely waited for the ballot ink to dry before rampaging into the Candlelight Party. Sokha’s trial could take many more months. Hun Sen will know that Rainsy and Sokha don’t need formal links or to publicly profess their comradeship for Cambodian voters to think a Rainsy-Sokha alliance is still on. Or, perhaps, the future lies with one of the opposition leaders fading away while the other remains relevant. The next few months will tell who will do the fading. Or, this political divorce could be the beginning of the end for both.