Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

GDP Members Despairing as Senior Leaders Defect to Ruling CPP

Headquarters of the Grassroots Democratic Party in Phnom Penh on April 5, 2023. (Photo supplied by GDP)
Headquarters of the Grassroots Democratic Party in Phnom Penh on April 5, 2023. (Photo supplied by GDP)

Two senior leaders for the opposition Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) defected to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), following the path of other high-ranking GDP members who abandoned the party in the months before the July elections.

The latest leaders to switch parties include GDP’s former steering committee chairman Sam Inn and secretary general Sem Hak. An April 4 royal decree appointed both to leadership roles in the Ministry of Environment: Inn to serve as secretary of state and Hak as undersecretary of state. 

“I have not enough capacity to fulfill the huge mission of the Grassroots Democratic Party and I have no hope from day to day on this duty, so I think that it isn’t a good thing to take a stand where I have no hope,” Inn said. 

Inn said the party’s lack of votes in the 2018 national elections — which were swept by the CPP after the leading opposition group was forcibly dissolved  — and the 2022  commune council elections, in which GDP won just six seats out of more than 11,000 across the country, showed that most Cambodians were unwilling to support GDP. 

He said the campaigning without results had been exhausting and the party lacked the financial and human resources to bolster its base. 

“The leaving was entirely my decision, there was no pressure or lobbying [from the CPP],” he said.

Inn said that in his new government position he will promote the rights of local people living near protected areas, develop environmental policies and strengthen the eco-tourism industry.

Hak could not be reached for comment.

GDP secretary general Vay Lundy, who assumed the position on April 1, said the party respected each members’ political rights and that the loss of the two senior leaders would not impact the party’s mission.

“This is their personal decision, it does not involve a stance of the Grassroots Democratic Party,” Lundy said. “Their leaving is related to receiving a new position at the Environment Ministry to bring their knowledge to serve [government] institutions and people.”

GDP has advocated for a more democratic society, pressing for reforms to the electoral system. The party also spoke out against the filling in of Phnom Penh’s Boeng Tamok lake for development, said Korng Savang, a coordinator for election monitoring NGO COMFREL.

“I have seen that they are active in raising [challenge] issues to the government and the National Assembly, they have been a voice to urge institutions to resolve people’s issues,” he said.

GDP would still participate in the upcoming elections, the party’s new secretary general  Vay Lundy said. But the party has lost five senior leaders, including its former prime ministerial candidate Yang Saing Koma who joined the CPP and became secretary of state for the Agriculture Ministry in late November. 

Grassroots Democratic Party supporters campaign at Chroy Changvar district’s Koh Dech commune in Phnom Penh during the commune elections on June 21, 2022. (CamboJA/Soeung Nimol)

Uon Sophal, a GDP councilor for Kampot province’s Damnak Sokram commune, said that party president Yeng Virak held an online meeting with grassroots activists and urged them to keep focused on the upcoming elections. 

“We are upset a little bit, but it will make [party] leaders stronger to address issues they have encountered,” Sophal said. “It always has an impact, like if one family loses the main person in the family, but this impact will just be for a  short time period.”

But the party would not have enough candidates for every province, secretary general Lundy admitted.

“We are focused on the significant [provinces] that we can compete in and receive a majority of votes,” Lundy said, though he would not reveal the party’s list of candidates and the provinces they would compete in. Parties must submit their list of candidates to the National Election Committee by May 8.

Political analyst Em Sovannara said that GDP’s best chance at getting candidates into the National Assembly was to forge an alliance with another political party, without specifying which one. He said he was impressed with GDP’s outreach to youth. 

“GDP is a part of a voice for democratic society,” he said. “But it has less of a voice to reach and gain public trust.”