Supporters of Cambodia’s opposition party are expressing their disappointment with a message former president Kem Sokha posted on Facebook that forbids the party from using his name and photos for political purposes.
Some activists see Kem Sokha’s statement, which explicitly mentions Sam Rainsy, a former leader of the opposition party who now lives in exile, as a signal of a division within the top ranks of leaders. But others contend that Kem Sokha’s message shows that he remains under duress from the government.
The intraparty dispute started on Nov. 28 when Kem Sokha wrote on his Facebook page that Sam Rainsy and his colleagues were using his name and photo in connection with activities that he didn’t support, including moves to support a reactivated opposition group called the Candlelight Party which held a party congress Saturday.
He also accused Sam Rainsy of “walking away from the original principles and spirit of unity to create various political movements and positions.”
“Therefore, I call on Mr. Sam Rainsy and his groups to stop abusing me by using my name and photo in connection with their political ambitions, which confuse the national and international public,” Kem Sokha wrote. “I would also like to affirm that I am not involved in and not responsible for the activities of Mr. Sam Rainsy and his group.”
Sam Rainsy, 72, who lives in France, was sentenced in March in absentia to 25 years on the charge of attempting to overthrow the government.
In a statement on Facebook, Sam Rainsy wrote: “This statement is the result of threats from [Prime Minister] Hun Sen who dreads unity among Cambodian democrats and who is holding Kem Sokha hostage.”
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017, two months after arresting Kem Sokha over an alleged plot to overthrow the government the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Officials have claimed that the plot was backed by the United States. Kem Sokha was subsequently banned from political activity.
His trial on unsubstantiated treason charges opened in January 2020, but officials suspended the trail that March until 2021 due, they said, to the coronavirus pandemic. The case has since been further delayed.
That leaves Kem Sokha, 68, in a political limbo, awaiting the resumption of a trial. Some analysts say the trial delays are part of a government strategy to keep him occupied through the next election cycle.
Addressing the spat, Kem Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya was quoted by the independent media outlet VOD as saying her father was responding to Sam Rainsy’s call for CNRP supporters to return to the Candlelight Party, which was formerly known as the Sam Rainsy Party.
“It’s been an ugly divide, one that is filled with disinformation and libels from the Sam Rainsy camp against Kem Sokha, his family, and former HRP officials,” she said, referring to her father’s Human Rights Party, which merged with Sam Rainsy’s party to form the CNRP.
“Sam Rainsy has been a narcissistic, abusive, gaslighting, sociopathic partner to Kem Sokha,” Kem Monovithya added.
‘His message drowns us’
CNRP supporters and activists said they believe that Kem Sokha’s message is demoralizing because they consider the two politicians to be equally important to the opposition movement.
Lim San, a member of the Brave Women group who was recently released from prison, said women, union leaders, environmental activists, and young opposition party members look to Kem Sokha for inspiration.
“We should be encouraged by him, [but] his message discourages and drowns us. I’m very disappointed,” Lim San told RFA.
Sin Chanpov Rozet, a CNRP member and chief of Battambang’s Ocha commune, told RFA that Kem Sokha’s message discouraged Cambodians who support the CNRP in its efforts to demand that the government respect human rights, restore democracy, and provide justice for political leaders like Kem Sokha.
“Banning Sam Rainsy and his group of loyalists from using Kem Sokha’s name and photo will not stop or intimidate the CNRP loyalists at the grassroots level to give up their struggles or abandon the absolute loyalty to the will of the people,” Sin Chanpov Rozet said.
Kien Ponlok, secretary general of the Federation of Cambodian Intellectual Students, said that Kem Sokha must try to clarify whether his message on Facebook represents a true disagreement between the two top opposition leaders. If so, then the ruling party will benefit.
“This must be asserted that Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy are one, so that people will have faith in them,” he said. “Of course, they should release the message, even though they are under political bans. But they should not keep quiet and accuse each other because doing so indicates a split of the democrats, with the ruling party as the winner.”
CPP spokesman Sok Isan denied that an internal division in the opposition would be beneficial to his party. It remains unclear if Kem Sokha would be able to participate in politics if he broke with Sam Rainsy, Sok Isan said.
Thailand-based political analyst Seng Sary noted that although Cambodian authorities have charged Kem Sokha with treason, the court has not presented any evidence of his guilt during the past four years. Instead, the case was postponed at the request of Hun Sen.
“Maybe he has a strategy in walking away from the CNRP,” he said.
Mu Sochua, CNRP vice president, said Sam Rainsy and other CNRP leaders are committed to restoring democracy and demanding justice for the people, including Kem Sokha.
“Our ambition is to protect the national interest,” she said, adding that the CNRP would remain a unified party as long as Kem Sokha did not officially announce his departure from the alliance.
Brad Adams, executive director of the Asian division of Human Rights Watch, said Kem Sokha was likely under duress, and therefore his statement cannot be trusted.
“Until Kem Sokha can travel freely, leave the country, come and go as he pleases — same with Sam Rainsy — we will never know what they really think, but by definition they are under duress right now,” he told RFA. “They are under pressure all the time.”
“When someone’s not free, then you can never be sure what they say is voluntary,” he said.
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