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Cracks emerge in Cambodia's opposition 

Sam Rainsy's new Cambodia National Rescue Movement has not received the backing of jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha
Cracks emerge in Cambodia's opposition 

Kem Sokha walks past a portrait of Sam Rainsy, former president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, at the party's headquarters in Phnom Penh on Feb. 12, 2017. Sokha does not support Rainsy's new movement. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Rising from the ashes of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), exiled former opposition leader Sam Rainsy has announced his latest effort to combat his old foe Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The CNRP, the only realistic threat to the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), was dissolved in an internationally condemned move last year after leader Kem Sokha was arrested and detained on treason charges, also widely panned as politically motivated.

Most prominent opposition figures have since fled Cambodia and maintained a low profile.

However, the fractured opposition's latest project, the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM), was officially launched in Long Beach, California, on Jan. 29 by Rainsy, who fled Cambodia in 2015 to avoid arrest over a slew of highly contested charges.

A five-part plan was announced including appealing to the international community to take action against the Hun Sen government for its dismantling of the opposition. It encouraged people to protest non-violently and will attempt to coax defections from the ruling party, The Phnom Penh Post reported.

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While in its infancy, the movement has already caused its fair share of controversy since it was announced two weeks ago.

The CNRP was formed in 2012 as part of a merger between the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and Kem Sokha's Human Rights Party (HRP). Despite managing to maintain a united front to the public and making huge gains in the 2013 national election and last year's commune ballot, it was no secret that there was underlying factionalism between Rainsy and Sokha loyalists.

Sokha, who is facing up to three decades in jail, has already said through his lawyer that he does not support Rainsy's new movement.

Hing Soksan, the former secretary-general of HRP, branded the movement "ridiculous" and called a promotional CNRM poster for an event in California "fake" due to it carrying a huge photo of Rainsy and Sokha raising their arms together.

"Taking Kem Sokha's portrait and name to involve him in the movement is completely deceitful," he wrote in a Facebook post alongside a copy of the poster with a huge red cross emblazoned on it.

The controversy surrounding the CNRM has had many questioning whether Cambodia's opposition is once again splitting along factional lines at a time when it should be portraying a united front.

"The biggest issue that the CNRM faces is that it lacks the clear and unanimous support of Kem Sokha's wing of the party, who are rightly worried about how it might impact his treatment in custody," said Sebastian Strangio, political analyst and author of Hun Sen's Cambodia.

"This may also reflect a long-standing rivalry over the leadership of the opposition movement. I think that the formation of this new entity is an attempt by Rainsy to position himself as the de facto leader of the Cambodian opposition-in-exile."

The exiled movement was yet another example of Rainsy playing "by the rules set by the CPP," said Astrid Noren-Nilsson, an associate senior lecturer at Sweden's Lund University specializing in Cambodian politics.

But the new movement, stacked with Rainsy loyalists, illustrated a clear split between the two sides of the opposition and perhaps indicated that Hun Sen's "divide and rule" tactics are finally working, she said.

"It seems obvious that there is a lack of coordination, flawed communication and diverging strategies being pursued between the scattered opposition leaders and activists — problems that because of communication challenges perhaps they won't be able to overcome," Noren-Nilsson said.

"The opposition should have learned by now that staying united was key to its success, so surely it is still a priority to find a way back to a common agenda."

Political analyst Meas Nee said that despite expecting the movement to have little relevance in the future, it was a likely a form of "psychological warfare" to remind the ruling party, and the more than three million Cambodians who voted for the CNRP in last year's commune election, that it would not be silenced.

Nee downplayed talk of the opposition falling apart, pointing out that Sokha's supporters could not overtly support the movement, which was labeled a "terrorist" group by military police chief Sao Sokha last week, for fears of jeopardizing their leader.

"They have to keep themselves quiet," Nee said. "The SRP, most of their MPs are in exile, so I think they can declare what they want to do. I think this is an expression of differences rather than a breaking down of the party at this stage."

Despite there being no evidence of the group supporting armed struggle, government spokesman Phay Siphan said he supported the assertion that the CNRM was a terrorist group.

"According to the activity, they are considered terrorists because they tried to destroy the harmony. They don't like the government, they do more than go against government ... but against the national interest," Siphan said.

"Sam Rainsy called for the armed forces to not obey their commands ... this is an act of a terrorist."

Former HRP officials still inside Cambodia declined to comment on the movement.

Mu Sochua, the former CNRP deputy president who has backed the CNRM, said efforts were being made to overcome "communication challenges" within the opposition and that the movement's primary goal was to ensure that the CNRP could stand in the June ballot led by Kem Sokha.

Sochua also said non-violent protests could take place in "any form and shape."

"Each step undertaken will aim at keeping the hope alive inside the country and to empower people to take the next steps until our demand is met," she said from the United States.

However, political analyst Sebastian Strangio branded the outlook for the political opposition in Cambodia as "bleak."

"Whether it is effective remains to be seen, and I'm not sure that calls for protest made from abroad will be effective, let alone wise," he said.

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