Kem Sokha has been a prominent human rights activist and head of his own party, but will his biggest challenge be as second-in-command to his former political rival?
By Daniel Besant
“We are proud that we have reached an agreement to serve the desire of Cambodian people who want to see one strong opposition party in order to rescue our nation from suffering,” said Kem Sokha back in July 2012 when his Human Rights Party merged with the Sam Rainsy Party to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the biggest opposition party in the Kingdom.
Kem Sokha had just agreed to be deputy to his long-standing political rival, Sam Rainsy. “Kem Sokha is an experienced ‘old-school politician’, a patron with the ability to gather an allegiance,” said Dr Markus Karbaum, an independent consultant in Cambodian politics. “He is power-hungry and this is a strong mainspring in any political career.”
Kem Sokha has put himself in the firing line many times by speaking out against the ruling government and went to prison on defamation charges in 2006. He has held meetings at the local level throughout the Kingdom, which were a first in a country not used to having an open forum to discuss civic issues.
Despite his ability to engage the people, Karbaum doubts Kem Sokha has what it takes to be a successful modern politician. “Allowing inner-party participation, developing policies and having clear standpoints are all things I do not recognise in him,” he said.
Last year, the CNRP gave the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) a run for its money in the national elections. The final tally was 68 seats to the CPP and 55 to the CNRP, a result that put a significant dent in the CPP’s majority. Still his party cried foul concerning alleged electoral irregularities and weeks of protest rallies followed, with Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha at the forefront calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down.
In the pre- and post-election periods, one of the main CNRP policies was a promise to raise the minimum wage to $160 per month. Although the proposal garnered much popular support, Kem Sokha and the CNRP must do more if they are ever to be the ruling party, according to Karbaum. “They must formulate a complete government programme for the next elections,” he said. “This will hardly have an impact on the electorate, but rather on the elites in military and business who will play a crucial role in the case of a regime change.”
As well as raising the minimum wage, another tenet of CNRP rhetoric is promises to deal with the unpopular Vietnamese, or ‘youn’. Many Cambodians believe Hun Sen is a puppet of Vietnam’s government and the CNRP plays to long-standing fears of Vietnamese encroachment.
Kem Sokha has long been at the forefront of calls to deal with the Vietnamese. As recently as May 4, as reported in the Cambodia Daily,he spoke to a cheering crowd as a line of soldiers blocked CNRP supporters from rallying in a provincial town. “The CNRP has not come [here] to make war,” he said. “This is not the front line. The front line is to the west; it is to confront the youn who are taking our Cambodian land.”
These kinds of comments seem at odds with a man who has some notable human rights credentials. “The CNRP’s rhetoric to target these Vietnamese is a stain on their image as a progressive party and must stop,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. “But at the same time, the government and the CPP’s total failure to recognise the ethnic Vietnamese and give them legal status is also unconscionable.”
And will Kem Sokha be able to keep the peace with his former political rival, Sam Rainsy? Not according to Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think they will have trouble getting along, primarily because Sam Rainsy has always had trouble sharing power with anyone… and because it is only in recent years that the opposition party became more than just a vehicle for Sam Rainsy,” he said. “I think the failing will come more from Rainsy than Kem Sokha, whom I think is a more malleable political figure; one who can work more easily with other people.”
“Holy activism” – “A bundle of sticks can’t be broken,” according to an old Cambodian proverb. It is a philosophy that underpins a network of media-savvy monks who defy the authorities by speaking out against social injustice