Cambodian Opponents Form New Political Parties, With PM’s Blessing

Analysts say division in opposition helps the ruling party keep rivals off balance.
Cambodian Opponents Form New Political Parties, With PM’s Blessing Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony of the Project for Flood Protection, donated by Japan, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 4, 2019.

Former officials of Cambodia’s banned opposition party have returned to political life, forming new parties that they say will help restore democracy to the country, but analysts told RFA that the new parties play into Prime Minister Hun Sen’s hand by dividing opponents to his 36-year hold on power.

As of the beginning of this month, six political parties have been formed by former officials of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the party that was banned in 2017. The new party leaders had to ask Hun Sen to have their political rights reinstated to lift a ban from political life for five years that accompanied the court-ordered dissolution of the party.

Yem Ponharith told RFA’s Khmer Service that he established the Kampuchea Niyum Party to restore democracy in Cambodia by serving as a counterweight to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

"Everything has a starting point. We have been organizing activists who have been involved in the struggle for so long because they love democracy and freedom and want social justice,” he said.

“Respect for human rights at the grassroots level requires mobilization and resilience. We must not leave the basic democratic space empty," Yem Ponharith said.

Some of these parties have already met all the criteria of the Ministry of Interior to register, while others are still in the process. The country of 16 million holds local elections in 2022 and a parliamentary vote the following year.

Though he has approved a return to political life for the leaders of the new parties, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced August 1 that any opposition party official who “upset him” would not be eligible for political rights.

“Even if the Minister of the Interior says he has never done anything wrong, if we predict he will come to destroy us, I will not give the right to do politics to him,” Hun Sen said.

“If I do not sign the sub-decree to be submitted to the King for his signature, the King cannot sign the sub decree to grant the right to politics,” he said.

Hun Sen has so far refused to restore the political rights of Chou Chou Ngy and Nhim Kim Nhol, who were members of the board of directors of the CNRP.

Political analysts told RFA’s Khmer Service that the several new parties will only help the CPP will continue to dominate the political arena through a divide-and-conquer strategy, and help Hun Sen continue to hold on to power.

“If the CNRP still faces divisions, it will be a driving force for the ruling party to stop worrying about the opposition’s popularity or ability to seize power in the future,” Em Sovannara, a political science professor, told RFA.

He said that the organization into new political parties not only reduces the CNRP’s influence, it also affirms that the dissolution of the CNRP was legitimate.

Former CNRP officials joining the new parties weakens unity in the CNRP, and is therefore the same as joining the ruling party, according to Kien Ponlok, Secretary-General of the Federation of Cambodian Intellectual Students.

"The formation of these new political parties, I think, has to do more with individual interests than the common interest,” Kien Ponlok said.

“It’s going along with the political trap of splitting the CNRP. It is also a deception to show the international community that Cambodia has many parties participating in the election, but in reality it is just fake democracy,” he said.

In addition to Yem Ponharith’s Kampuchea Niyum Party, the new parties so far are the Khmer Will Party, led by Kong Koam; the Khmer Love Nation Party, led by Chiv Kata; the Khmer Conservative Party, led by Riel Khemrin; the Kampuchea Reform Party headed by Pol Horm and Ou Chanrath; and the National Heart Party, founded by Siam Phluk.

Sok Eysan, a senior CPP official and spokesman, denied speculation that the CPP engineered these new parties to divide the opposition, but acknowledged that
“no party wants its opponent party to be strong.”

The CPP’s recognition of the new parties by former senior CNRP officials is proof that Cambodia has a healthy political system, he suggested.

Em Sovannara said that the denial of political rights to certain opposition party officials may be due to Hun Sen’s fears that the new political parties and the CNRP could form an alliance with each other.

Political observers say key to their success would be a declaration of support from the CNRP’s leaders, Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy. Without an endorsement from them, the people might not be so keen to support the smaller parties.

Kem Sokha is in political limbo awaiting trial on unsubstantiated treason charges, while the party’s other leader, Sam Rainsy, lives in exile in France and was sentenced in absentia in March to 25 years for attempting to overthrow the government.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP two months after Kem Sokha’s arrest in 2017, marking the beginning of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.

CNRP Vice President Eng Chai Eang told RFA that the new political parties would not affect the popularity of the CNRP, nor would they stop the CNRP from continuing its struggle to restore democracy in Cambodia.

“If the new parties want to continue to strengthen democracy, they must have the courage to advocate for the people and the bravery to stand up to dictatorship,” Eng Chai Eang said.

“If they do this, then I hope the people will have some understanding. But if they are there just to be quiet, creating the new parties just to legitimize Mr. Hun Sen, what they will get from the people is their condemnation,” he said.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.


Hen Mok
Aug 05, 2021 02:24 PM

Anybody who follows the edicts of Hun Sen is a traitor to democracy. Remember, this man was a follower of Pol Pot and partook in the genocide of millions of Cambodians. Now Hun Sen thinks he is untouchable and can continue to rule Cambodia as a dictator. This despotic maniac needs to be forcibly ousted if necessary. Screw the election process; Hun Sen will cheat and make sure the elections fall in his favor.