With Sam Rainsy gone, what’s next for Cambodia’s opposition?

By: Logan Connor - Posted on: February 13, 2017 | Cambodia

While the opposition leader’s resignation may have staved off the party’s dissolution, the CNRP’s challenges are just beginning

Sam Rainsy, former leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), greets his supporters along a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Sam Rainsy, former leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), greets his supporters along a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 19 July 2014. Photo: EPA/MAK REMISSA

The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) faces a crucial test after its leader Sam Rainsy, a figurehead of the opposition for two decades, resigned amid government threats to dissolve the opposition party.

Rainsy announced his resignation on social media Saturday, posting a letter he had sent to senior members of the CNRP on Facebook and Twitter, saying he was stepping down “for the sake of the party”, effective immediately.

It came after Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened earlier this month to dissolve parties led by criminal convicts and to keep those convicted of crimes from serving as political leaders. Legislation to that effect, due to be debated in the National Assembly on April 1, would directly hamstring the CNRP with Rainsy facing prison sentences and a host of defamation lawsuits brought by members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

In a video posted to Facebook yesterday, Rainsy, who is currently in exile in France, made it clear that his decision to leave the CNRP was an act of self-sacrifice to strengthen the opposition’s chances of contesting commune elections in June and general elections in mid-2018.

“If I was still the president, and the party gets dissolved, is there a benefit? It only damages our interests, the party’s interests and the nation’s interest,” he said.

“So what [do we] want? We want the election. We want changes through the election. But they want to dissolve our party, and if it is dissolved, our party cannot compete and the election is meaningless. Then we lose a historical opportunity to bring the changes that Cambodian people want.”

The CNRP’s permanent committee formally accepted his resignation yesterday and installed acting president Kem Sokha as interim leader. A new leader will not be formally selected until a party congress next April, just months out from the nation elections. With Sokha also embroiled in legal issues of late, the party has been plunged into a period of uncertainty.

Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, told Southeast Asia Globe in an email that Rainsy’s move will likely win “only temporary respite for the opposition”, adding that the next few weeks would be crucial for the party.

“The reaction of the CNRP over the coming weeks, both among its leadership and at the grassroots level, has the potential to send a very positive message to Cambodian society,” she said, “that a political party is not a one-man show, dominated by the personality of its leader(s), but derives its strength and success from its principles, governance and effectiveness.”

Though Rainsy is no longer officially at the helm, analysts believe he will remain an influential voice in the CNRP given his dominance of the opposition movement for so many years.

Speaking to the Phnom Penh Post, Rainsy said he would continue to support the CNRP despite the fact that he now “no longer had any responsibility in the party”. He also did not rule out a return to politics, saying he still was the “national and international symbol of resistance to the Hun Sen regime”.

According to Lee Morgenbesser, a researcher on electoral politics in Southeast Asia at Australia’s Griffith University, Rainsy could act as a rallying point for the opposition – if he could get back into the country.

“In this situation, he can play a less direct role, and a more informal role, which means he will be less bound by all the repressive techniques the government has applied against him,” Morgenbesser said.

Nevertheless, he cautioned that Sokha would need to act carefully to avoid fracturing the CNRP, which was formed through an alliance of two opposition parties in 2013.

“I think one thing he’ll do straight away is bring more of his own supporters into… the upper echelon leadership positions within the party, at the expense of Rainsy’s own supporters. Whether that’s the right thing to do, I would probably suggest not, given they’ll just antagonise Rainsy’s supporters.”