Sam Rainsy’s last stand?

After losing four elections and with cracks in his party widening, the 2018 general election could be Sam Rainsy’s last as the leader of the Cambodian opposition

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December 16, 2016
Sam Rainsy’s last stand?
Sam Rainsy, President of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), arrives at the National Assembly during a session in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 09 April 2015. Photo: EPA/MAK REMISSA

With only six months until Cambodia’s commune elections, the country’s largest opposition party should be investing all of its efforts into securing as many commune chiefs as possible, establishing momentum ahead of 2018’s general election. Yet it remains engaged in the same internal conflicts and political spats that have plagued it throughout 2016.

In November 2015, Sam Rainsy, the president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), went into self-imposed exile after a warrant was issued for his arrest over defamation charges. In October this year, the government made his exile official by warning airlines that any plane carrying Rainsy would not be permitted to land in the country.

Months after Rainsy went into exile, CNRP vice-president Kem Sokha was forced into hiding in the party’s headquarters after being sentenced to prison for failing to appear at trial after being accused of engaging in prostitution. Meanwhile, several of the party’s MPs have been imprisoned as part of the the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP)’s unrelenting crackdown.

Speaking to Southeast Asia Globe in late October, Rainsy was confident that his party is today in an even better position than 2013, when it narrowly lost the election to the CPP.

“In terms of popular support, because of the discontent with the Hun Sen regime, we are stronger,” he said. “Since the CNRP is the only alternative to the Hun Sen regime, and represents the first ever united democratic opposition, it embodies the hope of the people for a democratic change.”

Since the CNRP is the only alternative to the Hun Sen regime, and represents the first ever united democratic opposition, it embodies the hope of the people for a democratic change

This faith in his party’s strength is, in part, reflected in the way the government is treating the cases against him. He believes that if the government was sincere about prosecuting him, it would have done everything in its power to extradite him as soon as he was charged. Because it did not, he concluded, it “shows one thing: they don’t want me [to return]. Why? Because they’re afraid of what I could potentially do.”

It is probably true that the government would prefer Rainsy to remain abroad. But for all of his self-confidence, not everyone is convinced that he is the leader he used to be, nor that he is the best person to chart Cambodia’s course to democracy. Fatigue appears to be setting in over the decades-long game between the Rainsy mouse and the Hun Sen cat.

The inescapable fact is that Rainsy, who will be 69 years of age by the 2018 election, has effectively been the figurehead of the country’s opposition since 1995, when he was expelled from the National Assembly. He formed his own party, the Khmer Nation Party, later to become the humbly titled Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) in 1998, which merged with Sokha’s Human Rights Party in 2012 to form the CNRP.

Two decades in opposition have had a profound effect on Rainsy, said Ou Virak, president of the Future Forum think tank, who believes that somewhere along the way the leader lost his vision and ability to step back and look at the bigger picture. “Today, he seems to be obsessed with Hun Sen and himself more than anything else. More than about the country,” Virak said.

There is an often-expressed sentiment in Cambodia that because of all Rainsy has suffered, including a near-fatal grenade attack in 1997, he deserves to lead the opposition. However, Virak opined: “That is why he’s not a leader now, because of all of the scars for the last 20 years. That’s why someone should only stay in politics for ten years or so.” 

During an interview with BBC Hardtalk in September, Rainsy was bluntly told by the interviewer: “[The Cambodian people] haven’t shown they want you. They could look at you and say you’re the same generation [as Hun Sen], and they haven’t chosen you. Here you are, sitting in exile, [having] chosen to sit on the other side of the world.” To which Rainsy replied that it is “not a matter of persons” but a matter of “systems, of regimes”.

But, pundits argue, this is the problem with Rainsy and his style of leadership. It is all about personality, not structure. Noan Sereiboth, a blogger and member of political discussion group Politikoffee, said Rainsy still has the support of many Cambodians who oppose the Hun Sen government because “there is no choice besides him”. But this is no coincidence. If the logic is that the CNRP needs Rainsy, then that is because he has engineered it this way, which is certainly Sereiboth’s view. He said the party needs younger, fresh faces rising through the ranks.

“A lot of competent and strong youths want to join the CNRP to change this country, but it is hard to get a chance to do it and the CNRP’s top leaders do not listen to them. They still decide everything mostly [by themselves],” Sereiboth said. “Youths have new ideas and understand the situation clearly, so they are good enough to stand for [election].”

Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Los Angeles’ Occidental College, was more direct: “Let’s face it, the institutions [of the CNRP] have not been developed. Everything revolves around personalities, and we know that’s just Cambodian-style strongman-ism. We need more than strongmen. We need strong institutions.”

Everything revolves around personalities; that’s just Cambodian-style strongman-ism. [But] we need more than strongmen

In October, the country was provided with a rare glimpse of the divisions within the CNRP when two leading members voiced disaffection with the way it was being run. First, Kem Monovithya, deputy head of public affairs and Sokha’s daughter, tweeted mocking comments about Rainsy’s decision not to return to Cambodia. A week later, prominent CNRP official Prince Sisowath Thomico threatened to leave the party, saying: “The main issue is division. Behind the unity of Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, everything else is divided, and this is not acceptable.”

When asked if he still had the support of his party, Rainsy’s choice of words was telling. “The whole CNRP leadership, those who really take decisions, those who really matter, form a united front,” he told Southeast Asia Globe. Consider the phrase ‘those who really matter’. It is suggestive of a party that is less than inclusive or democratic in its approach to internal disputes and policy creation. “I think that what is most important is that the real strategy, the real policy to be implemented, has the support of all the people that matter,” Rainsy added.

Pairing these two criticisms – that the leader has been in the game far too long and has lost the ability to look at the bigger picture, and that the party fails to encourage younger members to voice fresh opinions – it is possible to conclude that Rainsy has overseen the development of an anachronistic, centralised political party that rests its foundation upon his own personal appeal to voters. Of course, such a view might become more nuanced when the party eventually publicly releases its manifesto, which was agreed by its 125-member standing committee last month. This would finally allow voters to learn about the party’s intentions for the future and its 2018 election platform. 

Still, all this leads to the question: should the 2018 election be Rainsy’s last? Virak believes the opposition leader should have stepped down after losing the 2013 election. But due to the personality-driven leadership favoured by the CNRP, the result of the next election will most likely come down to whether Rainsy is allowed to return before 2018, as he did in 2013 after receiving a royal pardon.

If the CNRP was to lose in 2018 – which would be Sam Rainsy’s fifth election as leader of an opposition party – then Ear believes confidence in the party’s leadership “will crumble”. Perhaps, then, it will be time for Rainsy to bow out of politics to allow for a new breed of democrats to try to overturn Hun Sen’s three-decade-long rule. What’s more, with the CNRP’s leaders either in exile or hiding, and the government unrelenting in its attacks, Rainsy and the CNRP face an uphill struggle to win in 2018. “I don’t think we’ve had an election quite this rigged,” Ear added.

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