Cambodian activist Kem Sokha kicked off his new Human Rights Party (HRP) last week with its first annual convention, promising a series of reforms for underrepresented and impoverished Cambodians. Over 10,000 supporters—driven in from all over the countryside—rallied behind the famed activist at the event. And, clad in yellow party t-shirts and waving their flags in allegiance to Sokha, the fan turnout exceeded the capacity of Phnom Penh’s colossal Olympic Stadium—a pleasant surprise in the Party’s expectations.
The convention, nonetheless, was quite a hit. In the following days, Sokha began calling the shots in The Cambodia Daily when he demanded political opposition leader Sam Rainsy prescribe to a new set of party standards. Most prominent on this list was a two-term limit for the Sam Rainsy Party’s (SRP’s) president, a flagship safeguard already institutionalized at the HRP and mimicking the U.S. system of presidency.
The demands have not gone without controversy, however, but have sparked a passionate debate between human rights guru Sokha and seasoned reform advocate Rainsy. While Sokha cited the convention’s vast turnout to establish leverage, Rainsy noted that he could easily topple such an event with his grassroots backing. And while Nguon Nhel of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) boasted his lack of concern over the HRP, Sokha and Rainsy—perhaps the splintered opposition—continued their sparring match without regard to the CPP’s established dominance.
Sokha gained international recognition when he was arrested for defaming the Hun Sen regime at a protest in 2005. Shortly thereafter, he was released following a wave of condemnation from the international community. In 2007, he announced his intentions to reenter politics while president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), an organization he founded.
Despite his platform of curtailing corruption and establishing better human rights standards, Sokha has been a controversial figure throughout the Cambodian blogosphere (which is, quite possibly, dominated by the SRP‘s educated urban demographic, whereas the HRP holds a stake in poorer rural areas). Popular Cambodian cartoonist Sacrava criticized Kem Sokha for supposedly helping Hun Sen at Cambodian Discussion (CAMDISC).
I’m sorry to say that Lauk Kem Sokha is just another new prop for Hun Sen’s background of its fake democracy. Drop your ego and your illution dream [sic] to win the election by your own team.
Sacrava’s statement mirrors the general sentiments of Cambodia’s small wired population, that Kem Sokha’s third party may divide the opposition even more and thus legitimize the CPP incumbency. Internet commentator James Sok soon replied to Sacrava, expanding this criticism to Cambodia’s general lineup of opposition forerunners.
Current Khmer politicians do not believe in national priority. They cannot win the election because: selfish leadership, narrow vision, poor organization, lacking real ideology, no trained membership, no supporting grassroots, lacking diplomatic support.
Less than two weeks after this exchange of commentary, Sokha and Rainsy fell into their beleaguered struggle. But one commentator on KI Media observed an earlier sibling-like relationship between Sokha and Rainsy and urged the two parties to stop fighting.
I was lucky to be invited by a friend to join a dinner with Sokha. I am the outsider and less interested in politics. However, I wanted to see Sokha in person. So I went. During the dinner Sokha got a phone call. Guess who? Rainsy called Sokha. They talked like brothers.
Now I don’t understand. They both exchanged words. And also you all here at KI comment exchanged words too. Please you all, both sides, get to know your boss a little more and you may find out something. I think they both play some kind of game here.
Blogging newcomer Scott from Scott in Cambodia notes some worry about the upcoming 2008 elections and the current political situation. While there is always bickering between parties like the HRP and SRP, he notes, Cambodians have historically resorted to violence in furthering their political agendas. And, regardless of the continuous political rhetoric pervading Cambodia, a country with such a tumultuous history has little chance of creating change through ballots thanks to the institutionalized corruption of Cambodian politics.
Most everything looks and seems okay. There are political parties – the CPP is the ruling party with Hun Sen as the Prime Minister, and Funcinpec is its main rival. Than at a distance there is the Sam Rainsy Party and the new Human Rights Party. There is usual and typical bickering between parties like live shells tossed back and forth. But this is a country whose political strife has usually been settled with violence.
The coming 2008 elections may be a turning point as to whether the HRP will help to further cement the CPP’s power or challenge it.