For ruling party lawmaker Chheang Vun, the claim that deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha took a series of young mistresses is a simple moral issue.
“He should be held responsible for this scandal since the value of the Khmer women he cheated has fallen,” Mr. Vun told reporters on Tuesday.
“To show the ethics of a lawmaker, he should resign from his parliamentary position if it’s true.”
Warning of an inquiry akin to the impeachment proceedings against former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Mr. Vun said the state was obliged to investigate the leaked phone calls supposedly proving Mr. Sokha’s affairs.
For a public already tiring of a monthlong moralizing crusade against Mr. Sokha, which has seen dozens of sometimes lewd recordings trickle out online, Mr. Vun’s denunciation seemed overly pious.
“If what he says is true, 60 percent of the men in Cambodia could be accused of violations of women’s rights,” Thida Khus, a prominent advocate for women and head of the Committee to Promote Women in Politics, said on Voice of Democracy radio.
“This is a private issue; it doesn’t need to be taken out in public like this,” she added, before raising the persistent rumors that high-profile CPP officials also have a penchant for extramarital romance.
“In our memories, we can recall the stories that have risen up…frequently in the past,” Ms. Khus said. “[There was] a private matter one time before, a story about arguments and the intimidation of a woman, the killing of a woman, and that was a private issue.”
In October 1999, Prime Minister Hun Sen himself was accused in such a scandal. Piseth Pilika, Cambodia’s most beloved actress and classical dancer, had been brazenly murdered months before, with French magazine L’Express claiming his wife, Bun Rany, instigated the crime out of jealousy.
Anti-Corruption Unit Chairman Om Yentieng, who has launched his own investigation into Mr. Sokha, joined both the prime minister and first lady in denying the claims, releasing an official written rebuke.
Yet even Mr. Yentieng has not avoided claims about mistresses. In April 2004, villagers on the forested Oral Mountain in Kompong Speu province accused his “third wife” of buying 4.3 cubic meters of illegally logged luxury wood to furnish her new home. (Mr. Yentieng denied the claims.)
Tep Vanny, a well-known anti-government activist, said on Thursday that ruling party officials were playing with fire by encouraging talk of infidelity.
“It’s man’s nature, so if you criticize others for doing this, it’s best to clean yourselves first, because the ones who are criticizing others have too much dirty history,” Ms. Vanny said, adding she had tired of hearing about Mr. Sokha’s alleged affairs with a hairdresser who goes by the name Srey Mom.
“If Kem Sokha really had a relationship with Srey Mom and then Srey Mom came out and strongly reacted against Mr. Sokha for hurting her or violating her rights, we’d be on the side of Srey Mom as women,” she said.
“But this story, there have been no reactions from Kem Sokha’s wife, from Srey Mom or from Mr. Sokha himself. It sounds like a peaceful relationship, so it’s ridiculous that government’s institutions and a small group of students are reacting,” she said.
However, government spokesman Phay Siphan said Mr. Sokha should take responsibility for his behavior.
“People believed in him. Some would even give their life for him to protect him, and believe in him as a sacred person. Some sell everything to come to Phnom Penh to hold demonstrations with him. Overseas, they give him money to help the poor,” Mr. Siphan said.
“Until now, I do not see any achievements from Kem Sokha. He gets given so much money but he has spent so much of that money on his mistresses,” he added.
“For the mistresses, Cambodia does not need that. We need to clean it up for Buddhism. People say all males have them, but it’s females who do not like it, and it’s especially politicians who have to behave.”
A decade ago, in March 2006, Mr. Hun Sen similarly criticized “elderly gangsters” in the royalist Funcinpec party for taking “evil foxes” with a penchant for graft as their mistresses—comments seen as a rebuke of Prince Norodom Ranariddh and his then-mistress, Ouk Phalla.
Prince Ranariddh was ousted as Funcinpec’s leader and the National Assembly president that year as the CPP and his now ex-wife waged a yearlong campaign against his marital affair. Yet the prince hit back, arguing he was engaging in well-accepted behavior.
“He who criticizes me is worse than I, but they have no courage and take no responsibility,” Prince Ranariddh said in November 2006 as the government pushed through a new anti-adultery law.
“How dare any leader of any party tell the nation that they would never have an [affair]? Secondly, certain persons loved a girl and made her pregnant, but they abandoned her. Some killed them too,” he said.
The now decade-old campaign against the prince brought out many prominent members of the royal family in defense of a man’s right to indulge in discreet polygyny.
Princess Norodom Vacheara argued at the time that such a matter was not a public issue, replying: “Who does not have a mistress?”
Her remark amused none other than late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who had 14 children by various women, and who asked his adopted son, Prince Sisowath Thomico, to produce a film on the theme of mistresses.
“The purpose of the movie is to say that every Cambodian has a mistress…no fuss should be made about having a mistress in Cambodia,” Prince Thomico said at the time of the release. “That is a very natural thing.”
The prince, who is now a prominent member of the CNRP, reiterated his pro-mistress position on Thursday.
“The accusations will not tarnish his reputation,” Prince Thomico said of Mr. Sokha. “Every Cambodian has a mistress. It’s part of the game in Cambodia.”
“No one cares,” he added. “Even in the party itself, we just don’t talk about it. We are kind of amazed by the CPP playing this game.”
Prince Ranariddh, who is now married to Ms. Phalla, declined to comment on Mr. Sokha’s scandal on Thursday. “No, no, no,” the prince said. “No comment please.”
Yet unabashed defenses of mistresses have not been limited to the opposition and royal family.
Six months after Prince Thomico’s film was released, and as the adultery law was being written, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith spoke out against the law.
Arguing that Cambodia is not a “monk society,” Mr. Kanharith said at the time that occasional extramarital activity could be a source of stress relief.
“If not, there will be bad tempers and fights in the office,” he said.