Cambodia's opposition to battle Hun Sen for nation's heartland

After Sam Rainsy's resignation, new opposition leader Kem Sokha will lead challenge against ruling party
Cambodia's opposition to battle Hun Sen for nation's heartland

Cambodia's opposition leader Kem Sokha after a parliamentary meeting at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh on Dec.7, 2016. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

The forced resignation of Cambodia's prominent opposition leader Sam Rainsy after a slew of law suits, government harassment and threats of jail is reshaping the political landscape ahead of local elections, an important barometer for national polls to be held mid-next year.

As a former finance minister, leader of his own party and more recently head of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy had built himself a formidable reputation for challenging this country's ruling elite over issues ranging from corruption and land grabbing to illegal logging and election rigging.

His successor, Kem Sokha, does not enjoy the same popularity as Sam Rainsy does in Cambodia's rapidly urbanising capital or in the West, where the CNRP counts on the Khmer diaspora for much of its funding.

Instead, Kem Sokha's strengths sit more comfortably with the impoverished and remote villages of this developing country, where he has won respect for his lengthy town hall meetings focusing on social and economic development at the village level.

That's a major headache for Prime Minister Hun Sen who has claimed the rural heartland as his constituency since coming to power in 1985.

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End of an era

Sam Rainsy, a former investment banker with a penchant for skiing holidays in Europe, quit after four failed tilts at the nation's leadership.

He went close to snatching victory in 2013 when Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) was returned but with a sharply reduced majority amid allegations of widespread cheating.

In winning 55 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly, the CNRP capitalised on a major shift in demographics. At least 65 percent of this country's 15 million people are under the age of 35 and, unlike their parents, are disaffected by war.

In a loud and rather exuberant campaign, Cambodian youth rallied behind Kem Sokha's words Do Min Do — meaning change or don't change — which became an anthem for thousands who took to the streets in support of the CNRP.

It was a wake-up call for the CPP.

Hun Sen enjoys playing the peace dividend with the rural electorate. His sometimes-brutal rule, since three decades of war ended in 1998, has ensured security and delivered almost 20 years of unparalleled economic growth and that has largely been behind his electoral success.

But his persistent threats that Cambodia will return to civil war if the CPP loses office is falling on deaf ears, especially among post-war baby boomers who want decent jobs to pay for personal computers, motorbikes and the latest fashion accessories.

Like the baby boomers who left their villages for the prosperity of Phnom Penh and provincial towns like Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat, and the thriving port city of Sihanoukville, those still living in the rural heartland are fed-up with corruption and in particular a widening wealth gap.

This was highlighted by a report from London-based Global Witness released mid-last year valuing Hun Sen's family business assets at a minimum of US$200 million, adding the real figure could be measured in billions, while some 40 percent of Cambodians live below the poverty line.

Kem Ley, a prominent political analyst, said the report warranted an independent investigation into the undisclosed wealth of the family and their inner circle of political and business elites. Days later he was he shot dead while enjoying a Sunday morning cup of coffee at a regular stop.



Kem Sokha (left) holds hands with Sam Rainsy during campaigning ahead of the 2013 election. (Photo by Luke Hunt)


Court before elections

Among the myriad of lawsuits launched by Hun Sen in recent months was a defamation case against another analyst, Kim Sok, for alleging the CPP was tied to Kem Ley's murder.

The prime minister also warned those who might disturb stability to "prepare the coffin."

While the detail surrounding Kem Ley's killing remains unsubstantiated, opposition politicians have been bashed by military-backed pro-government supporters and jailed by a court system, which civil rights groups say is simply compliant with the ruling party.

Sam Rainsy fled into exile after a long forgotten defamation suit was resurrected and he was sentenced to jail. Another five-year sentence was imposed for a Facebook post.

The final act, prompting his resignation, was a US$1 million defamation suit launched by Hun Sen alongside plans to change Cambodian law, banning people with a conviction from leading political parties.

This will all play-out in the lead-up to commune elections on June 4 and a national ballot in mid-2018. Communes are clusters of villages and that poll will elect thousands of officials to local posts and lay the groundwork for next year's ballot.

Cambodia has no formal, western-styled opinion polls but the CNRP and CPP do conduct their own in-house surveys.

Diplomats and CPP sources are saying early surveys indicate a 10 to 20 percent swing against the government, perhaps more, and those numbers have panicked the CPP hierarchy where concern is firmly fixed on their jobs and next year's general election.

The CNRP needs to improve on its 2013 performance by just seven seats to win government and Kem Sokha, with the support of Cambodian youth in the cities unlikely to wane and his homespun credibility in the countryside, has the ability to do just that.

It will be a closely fought and closely watched battle and a wily Hun Sen will use every trick at his disposal. In the meantime, all Kem Sokha has to do is stay out of court.

Luke Hunt covers Southeast Asia with a focus on Cambodia. He is the commentary editor for and also writes for other international media. 

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