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Cambodia's Sam Rainsy throws politics into disarray

After a dramatic resignation via social media, opposition leader remains coy about his future ambitions

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Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy says the timing of his resignation is intended to embarrass Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party.   © Reuters

MELBOURNE -- Cambodia's longtime opposition leader Sam Rainsy said his snap weekend decision to resign was made in secret so it would serve as a pre-emptive blow to government plans to use his leadership as a pretext to dissolve his party.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party leader announced his resignation via Facebook on Saturday, in a move he said was timed to come just before the government passed new legislation enabling it to disband parties led by politicians with criminal convictions.

"It's a real resignation because if I didn't resign, the CNRP would be dissolved -- so my objective is to preserve the CNRP from being dissolved," said Rainsy, who currently resides in France to avoid an old defamation conviction that was reactivated during political tensions last year after effectively lying dormant for years.

With commune -- or local council -- elections just months away, the party's steering committee met on Sunday to confirm Kem Sohka, Rainsy's deputy, as acting president of the CNRP at least until that vote is completed.

In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, Rainsy said the timing of his resignation was intended to embarrass Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party, forcing leaders to push ahead with an ugly, unpopular piece of legislation to ban convicted politicians that now could not even serve its intended purpose.

Rainsy, who could be seen as something of a "comeback king" in Cambodian politics, remained coy about his future political ambitions.

"I cherish and uphold the CNRP's ideals in my heart [but] how this would translate in the future, we will see," he said, when asked if he intended eventually to return to the leadership.

For decades Rainsy has been the dominant opposition figure in Cambodia but has remained locked in a deeply personal and repetitive political arm-wrestle with Prime Minister Hun Sen -- a struggle that many in the opposition movement have grown tired of.

The theater between the two has followed a familiar script on several occasions, whereby questionable charges are laid against Rainsy by the government; he flees the country for France (where he spent years in self-imposed exile); a political negotiation takes place between him and Hun Sen; and Rainsy is pardoned, returning as a hero. Continuing this inconclusive narrative, Rainsy is currently in self-exile for the fourth time.

In 2013, after one such particularly spectacular return, Rainsy's party nearly swept to a startling victory in national elections that were marred by widespread electoral irregularities. The opposition's strong gains, largely on the back of a new, energized younger demographic of voters, were still seen as a stunning upset for strongman ruler Hun Sen.

Cambodians return to the polls in June for commune -- or local council -- elections, where they will elect local representatives for more than 1,500 councils across the country. The CPP typically performs well in such contents, but the last such poll -- in which the ruling party dominated -- was not indicative of subsequent national election results.

The crucial national election, which will decide who leads the country, will follow in 2018 and, once again, the youth vote will be critical.

With Rainsy gone, one question for the CNRP will be whether, with this opportunity to reshape its leadership, the party embraces representatives of this new base of support or remains dominated by its powerful older guard.

Just another sequel?

Kem Sokha has served as Rainsy's deputy since the pair merged their respective political vehicles, the Human Rights Party and the Sam Rainsy Party, in 2012 to form a powerful but often strained alliance.

Both have weathered sustained legal attacks from a judiciary widely criticized by legal watchdogs as a tool of the ruling party. In Sokha's case, these have come most recently in the form of a bizarre government-led corruption probe drawing on leaked phone calls purportedly revealing his pursuit of an extra-marital affair.

Rainsy said he supported Sokha to take over as president in the immediate term ahead of commune elections, but stopped short of giving his former deputy an unequivocal long term endorsement because of this judicial vulnerability.

"If they find that Kem Sokha can be subject to attack and from what Hun Sen is trying to create [in terms of] judicial problems...then we have to take that into account and take the less vulnerable person in order for that person to be a safe person for the party," he said.

In separate comments, CNRP public affairs head and longtime opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua would not be drawn on who might now step into Sokha's role as deputy, saying only that the party had been taken completely by surprise by Rainsy's decision and did not want to become distracted by leadership ahead of commune elections.

"He said goodbye to us and even if he was here, the party's not controlled by him [anymore]," she told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Political analysts however remain widely skeptical that the indefatigable former banker was really ready to end his decades-long political battle.

Ou Virak, founder of the Future Forum political think tank, said he believed someone who was a "very, very close ally to Sam Rainsy" would take over as deputy, with Rainsy still firmly in control from afar.

"In the short run Sam Rainsy will remain a shadow and rule from abroad so I don't think too much will change in the next two years or so," he said.

Desperation or heroism?

Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra and a long-time observer of Cambodian politics, said the resignation looked to be nothing more than a "desperate tactical ploy" as the CNRP stared down defeat at the commune elections.

"With Rainsy overseas he [Kem Sokha] might push to have a stronger role but I don't think Sam Rainsy is yet yesterday's man," he said, adding that Hun Sen would still find reasons to target the CNRP on legal grounds, even without Rainsy at the helm.

In the government's view, Rainsy's announcement amounts to a different type of ploy -- one to install his wife, CNRP lawmaker Tioulong Saumura, in power as his proxy.

A spokesman for the government's Council of Ministers, Phay Siphan, on Sunday reiterated this rumor, spread by a pro-government news outlet on the weekend, stating: "We want to tell the world, especially the media," about Rainsy's alleged motivation.

"How he reacted [was] completely different to what he wants to tell the world, he wants to transfer the power to his wife," Siphan said.

Though the sincerity of his resignation may be under question, an amused Rainsy was definitive in his response to this parting accusation. "I didn't resign in order for Saumura to replace me. I want to show my resignation is genuine and I am not going to come back under the name of my wife," he said, with a chuckle.

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