Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Kem Sokha’s message shows Rainsy-Sokha split after Candlelight Party congress

Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy (Center Right) and vice president Kem Sokha greet supporters during Rainsy's 2013 homecoming to Phnom Penh. Picture taken July 19, 2013. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy (Center Right) and vice president Kem Sokha greet supporters during Rainsy's 2013 homecoming to Phnom Penh. Picture taken July 19, 2013. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Former president of the outlawed opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Kem Sokha has put distance between himself and exiled political figure Sam Rainsy, saying the two men “are not the same person”. Sokha pointed to the return of Rainsy’s former Candlelight Party as a sign of the political split between the two opposition leaders.

Writing on his Facebook page the day after the reformed Candlelight Party’s congress on Saturday, Sokha accused Rainsy and his colleagues of continuing to use his name and photo in connection with political activities without his support.

“Their actions show that Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha are not the same person because of those activities without my support,” read the post. “I would verify that I am not involved, and not responsible for those activities of Sam Rainy and the group.”

Sokha said that Rainsy and colleagues have walked away from the principle and spirit of unity that had motivated their joint political activities and taken its own position, in particular through their support of Rainsy’s former Candlelight Party.

Former CNRP president Kem Sokha greets his supporters as he leaves the Municipal Court of Phnom Penh, Picture taken January 16, 2020. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The Candlelight Party, which was previously known as the Sam Rainsy Party and later merged with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party to form the CNRP, held a congress on November 27 to restart the party and set it on track to join the commune elections on June 5, 2022, and the general elections the year after.

Although Rainsy did not respond to requests for comment, he wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday that Sokha’s statement was “the result of threats from Hun Sen, who dreads unity among Cambodian democrats and who is holding Kem Sokha hostage”.

Speaking to an audience of about 60 party members during the congress, former Sam Rainsy Party senator Thach Setha said that the Candlelight Party’s return was intended to uphold democracy, which he said was being undermined by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

“The Candlelight Party is the house of democracy, and it has now opened its doors to welcome all democrats who can join with the Candlelight,” he said.

The congress selected Teav Vannol as president and Thach Setha as a vice president of the party.

“There is no break-up, because we can’t let them tie our hands, and if we stay calm it will fulfil the wish of the ruling CPP,” Setha said.

Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy greets his supporters during his 2013 homecoming to Phnom Penh. Picture taken July 19, 2013. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Political analyst Meas Nee said that it wasn’t wrong of Kem Sokha to make his stance clear in order to shield himself from potential legal complications pending the resumption of his trial on treason charges. Sokha remains barred from political activities following his release from house arrest in 2019.

“For my personal view, sometimes when something remains hugging together, it will have no benefit,” he said. “But if it splits, it is good in the circumstances that they both restart and grow respectively, and they can merge again in the future.”

CNRP president Sokha was arrested on September 3, 2017, and charged with conspiring with a foreign power for allegedly working with the US to attempt a so-called color revolution to overthrow the government. Sokha has maintained that he has only acted legitimately and transparently to try to win an election.

The CNRP was dissolved by Supreme Court order in 2017, allegedly for serving as a vehicle for that same attempted revolution. As part of the decision, more than 100 CNRP members were barred from political engagement for five years.

The Cambodian government has since permitted the “rehabilitation” of these banned members, allowing them to join political parties ahead of the 2022 commune elections. Six small parties have been started by former CNRP members belonging to both Sokha and Rainsy’s factions.

These parties now include the Khmer Will Party, the Cambodia Reform Party, the Khmer Conservative Party, the Kampuchea Niyum Party, the Cambodia National Love Party and the Cambodia National Heart Party. These parties will presumably be on the ballot when Cambodian voters go to the commune council elections.

Pa Chanroeun, president of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, said that Kem Sokha’s statement sent a clear message.

“This message clearly shows the break-up of Kem Sokha’s side and Sam Rainsy,” he said.

Former senior CNRP official Meach Sovannara said that the congress of the Candlelight Party was dishonest, going against the agreement made in the forming of the CNRP in Manila in 2012.

“It is a problem that democrats must consider and understand political strategy,”he said. “And it is time for national reconciliation and trust in each other,” he said.

“I believe the political situation will be changed,” Sovannara said.