A closer look at Mu Sochua, Eng Chhay Eang and Pol Ham, the three opposition politicians who have been named joint vice-presidents of the Cambodia National Rescue Party
On Tuesday, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) announced that three of its politicians – Mu Sochua, Eng Chhay Eang and Pol Ham – would replace Kem Sokha as vice presidents of the party after he was made the new party president. The announcement came a little over two weeks after CNRP figurehead Sam Rainsy stepped down as president of the party in the face of threats from Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to dissolve the opposition.
Details as to how the trio will share their duties have not yet been made public. But human rights consultant and long-time Cambodia watcher Billy Tai said the diffusion of power through three vice presidents would both give more credence to the politicians and make it more difficult for the ruling party to force them out through political means.
“It gives more profile to the three individuals, allows them to stand up and actually put their hands up, so to speak, and push [the opposition] agenda,” Tai said. “It also means that, similarly to the whole Sam Rainsy-Kem Sokha alliance, if the CPP goes and picks off one, there’s still others.”
We take a closer look at the three who will help Sokha lead the CNRP to the June commune elections and the national polls in 2018:
In the 1990s, the US-educated Mu Sochua made her name for her relentless work promoting women’s rights, particularly with Khemara, the country’s first organisation dedicated advocating on behalf of women. Her transition into politics came in 1998 when she was elected as an MP for Battambang with the royalist Funcinpec party, making her one of the few women in Cambodian history to enter parliament. She served as Minister for Women’s and Veteran’s Affairs until 2004, when she switched to the Sam Rainsy party, which merged with the CNRP in 2012. She has become a symbol of progress worldwide for her work, helping to pass the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill as well as fight human trafficking and labour exploitation in Cambodia. In 2013, she was arrested and jailed on charges of insurrection and incitement of violence after a number of her supporters had allegedly turned on security guards during a protest.
Sochua, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who has been serving as the CNRP’s director of public affairs, is easily the most recognisable of the new CNRP vice presidents, having represented Cambodia in such high-profile settings as Anthony Bourdain’s well-known TV travel show No Reservations. She has also been singled out on several occasions by the ruling party: in 2009, Hun Sen used an epithet describing Sochua as a prostitute in a speech.
For Tai, Sochua’s renown could benefit the CNRP. “I do think that somebody needs to continue this profile-building for the opposition, especially among international allies,” he said. “She seems to be the best-placed person to do that.”
As the head of the CNRP’s steering committee and the party’s third-in-line in recent years, Pol Ham has served as acting president for the CNRP when Rainsy and Sokha were unavailable. Like Sokha, Ham got his start in politics in the 1980s while participating in the democratic resistance to the socialist People’s Republic of Kampuchea. A founding member of Sokha’s Human Rights Party, he has protested the development of the controversial Stung Chhay Areng hydropower dam in Koh Kong provice and voiced support for ethnic Chong families there.
Though Ham has on occasion provided comment to international media outlets, he has largely stayed out of the spotlight. According to Tai, this is a common practice in Cambodian politics – a few key members of a party will represent their colleagues in public, while many other members provide leadership from the background.
“The opposition is just as bad [as the ruling party] in terms of the amount of information that they keep secret,” said Tai. “You have these people that stay in the background… who are very senior, but prefer to have no profile.”
Eng Chhay Eang
Eng Chhay Eang, who has been deputy head of the CNRP’s executive committee, was also a veteran of the Sam Rainsy Party, serving as the party’s secretary general before the 2012 merger.
A longtime ally of Sam Rainsy, Chhay Eang made headlines recently when Hun Sen singled him out for his alleged gambling addiction. In late January, an anonymous Facebook post showed photographs of Chhay Eang gambling at a casino and also accused him of being among several top CNRP officials engaged in adulterous affairs.
“Eng Chhay Eang is a lawmaker, who is close to Sam Rainsy, goes to all casinos and is addicted to gambling without paying attention to [National] Assembly’s meetings or caring to solve the problems of people in his constituent area,” the post read.
Tai opined that now Chhay Eang is in a high-profile position within the CNRP the ruling party could jump on the opportunity to highlight the lawmaker’s supposed moral failings.
“How the CNRP play that would [come down to] whether they dismiss it as something that is personal, or whether they try to go on the counter-offensive,” Tai added. “The problem with going on the counter-offensive is, suddenly they get sued for defamation and they get thrown in jail and, given the new law, the whole existence of the CNRP might come into danger.”