Does Cambodia’s New Opposition Movement Really Matter?

A closer look at the new Cambodia National Rescue Movement.

Originally published by The Diplomat (January 17, 2018)

Cambodia’s former opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s reverence for political change is exceeded only by his reverence for himself as the instigator of it. That may be why, this weekend in the United States, he launched the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM), a new body that is supposed to complement the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Cambodia’s main opposition party until it was formally dissolved by the Supreme Court in November as the Southeast Asian state prepares for elections scheduled for July.

“Supposed”, however, is the lingering word, for there is appears little reason to form the group and few explanations of how it will different from, or coexist with, the CNRP. At present, it isn’t even clear if the CNRM will only be an in-exile group, directed from abroad, or if it will try to become a formal organization in Cambodia. Though Sam Rainsy said on Twitter on Tuesday it has not been “officially formed yet,” there are suggestions that the Interior Ministry is already looking into its legality.

Depending on which way you slice it, the CNRM is either the renaissance of the opposition movement or its last gasp before expiration. Either way, it allows Sam Rainsy to retake control of the opposition, something denied to him when he was forced to resignfrom the CNRP last February.

But though it is still early days, things haven’t exactly started well so far. The CNRM has already quickly earned the ire of some CNRP members, chiefly those who hail from Human Rights Party (HRP), which has always had fraught alliance with Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) members since the two parties merged in 2012. Hard to miss is the fact that many of signatories of the CNRM’s mission statement trace their lineage to the SRP, most of whom have fled Cambodia in recent months.

“Ridiculous” was how the HRP former secretary-general Hing Soksan described it. Another former HRP lawmaker said it puts at risk Kem Sokha, the CNRP president and HRP founder, who awaits trial after being arrested in September and charged with treason.

This is partly true. Kem Sokha’s name was included in the CNRM’s statement, apparently without his knowledge, though only to say his release is one of the “movement’s” objectives. Furthermore, if the new group calls for protests (as it says it might do), then Kem Sokha could be held responsible (or, at least, it would allow the courts another indictment against him.)

Given that Sam Rainsy resigned from the CNRP last February, there have been queries as to how he can be allowed to effectively split the party between those who want to continue under the CNRP name – as some members say they want to do – and those that have signed up to the CNRM.

This rocky start could get even worse. One statement taken from the CNRM’s list of objectives, posted on Sam Rainsy’s Facebook page, says that once its numerous objectives are achieved the “CNRM will dissolve itself and all its leaders and activists originally from the CNRP will return to their original party” [emphasis added].

Does this mean that those who joined the CNRM now no longer consider themselves part of the CNRP? For instance, are Mu Sochua and Eng Chhai Eang, CNRP’s co-vice presidents who signed the CNRM’s document, no longer part of the CNRP because they are with the CNRM? Provided this is not some sort of grammatical mistake by the writer of the document, this could have significant consequences.

It is important to bear in mind here that while the CNRP was formally dissolved in Cambodia by the Supreme Court, the party contends this was illegitimate so, up until now, effectively continued to operate as if it was an existing party. Indeed, up until this weekend, none of the party’s leaders renounced their membership, nor claimed that the CNRP leadership structure no longer existed. “I am not interested in [the CNRM] because I want to do political struggle only under the CNRP umbrella,” Hing Soksan was quoted as saying, echoing the views of many members.

Partly, this is because it hopes that it might be able to compete in Cambodian elections again. “The holding of free and fair elections with the participation of the CNRP,” is one of the CNRM’s objectives.

Though one will have to await clarification on this, for now, given all of this, one might assume that “movement” considers itself coexistent with the “party,” as do those who joined the CNRM.

The political analyst Meas Nee, talking to the Phnom Penh Post, had his finger closest to the pulse when he said the “movement” was likely formed to reassure CNRP supporters in Cambodia that the party’s leadership isn’t being passive. “CNRP supporters at the grassroots level have described the situation as living without a head,” he said. “At least they will know that their leader is not sleeping.”

The problem, however, is though they might not be sleeping, most of the party’s leaders are now living thousands of miles away from Cambodia. That begs the question: After so many years in exile, without much success, does Sam Rainsy still think leadership-in-exile is an effective political tactic? Apparently so.

It is far from clear whether this is the case, however. Granted, since many CNRP/CNRM leaders are now abroad, they can busy themselves lobbying foreign governments. But at the same time, of what use has this been so far? It’s now been three months since the United States and the European Union threatened economic sanctions. So far, we’ve only seen paltry responses, and probably won’t see anything more.

Another problem arises with respect to Sam Rainsy’s assertion that the CNRM can “launch appeals to the people to organize peaceful protests, to workers to go on strike and to the armed forces to side with the people.” The assumption here – that while calling for protests under the CNRP was not possible, as a new CNRM that might now be possible – strictly speaking this isn’t true. Since November, the Cambodian government hasn’t considered the CNRP a legal entity, so it isn’t liable to the rules that apply to political parties. Calling from protests using the CNRP name would thus seem to be legally the same as calling for them under the CNRM.

Furthermore, if calling for protests and demonstrations in Cambodia is the reason for the CNRM’s formation, as Sam Rainsy suggested it was, this is rather optimistic. No one in the country seems ready to demonstrate. CNRP supporters I’ve spoken to say they’ll boycott July’s general election but that they consider this now to be their only means of protest.

CNRM’s formation might also to do with money, though this is only conjecture at this stage. The CNRP’s finances have long been sketchy at best, something I covered last year in The Diplomat. Interestingly, enough, there has been little information on what has happened to the CNRP’s funds since its dissolution. (The Interior Ministry is reportedly looking at the possibility of seizing the assets of some CNRP members.)

Furthermore, as I pointed out last May, the CNRP is not the most transparent about its fundraising. Mu Sochua told me that donations, largely from the Cambodian diaspora, often go to individual politicians and then they decide how they want it spent. “Usually they sponsor a commune, province, [or] the party itself,” she said.

As a result, the creation of the CNRM might be a means of ensuring donations from the Cambodian diaspora do not dry up, while providing a new centralized body for money to flow into. Given that now-exiled CNRP leaders are busy lobbying foreign governments, the CNRM could also be a legally necessary organization to pay for this.

Conjecture and money aside, what is clear is that Sam Rainsy wants to return to the early days of the SRP, when it seemed more like a movement, closely aligned with the growing civil society, than a political party. Sam Rainsy has said that civil society members can join the CNRM, since it isn’t a party.

In a sense, then all of this might be a case of two steps backwards and one step forward. The Cambodian opposition is returning to what worked in the 1990s and hoping history repeats itself, enabling both the rebuilding of a democratic, liberal movement and its consolidation into a political party. That also happens to be a return to a time when Sam Rainsy was the sine qua non of the opposition movement, for better or for worse.

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