The Rise and Revolt of ‘Rescue Girl’ Thy Sovantha

In the six months after the July 2013 national election, teenage CNRP activist Thy Sovantha was perhaps the most popular non-elected political figure in Cambodia, having become the face of Facebook’s reconfiguration of politics in the country.

Images and videos of the photogenic 18-year-old high-school student had been posted by the opposition party to the social networking website throughout the election campaign with less-than-subtle suggestions about the benefits of joining the CNRP’s campaign.

Thy Sovantha speaks at a news conference in May during which she announced a campaign demanding that deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha step down. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Thy Sovantha speaks at a news conference in May during which she announced a campaign demanding that deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha step down. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“It is known that the young National Rescue girls are beautiful and gentle when you meet them,” said one post in June 2013 from the CNRP’s Phnom Penh campaign manager Ly Sovichea, next to images of Ms. Sovantha assembling small CNRP flags.

In the months of demonstrations after the disputed election, Ms. Sovantha helped to lead—from atop her Lexus SUV—the opposition party’s chants of “Hun Sen, step down,” while using her smartphone to film news segments for the popular “I Love Cambodia Hot News II” Facebook page.

The clips helped to break the CPP’s stranglehold on the media and boost the CNRP to a near election victory, and her popularity and aggression were rewarded with positions alongside opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha at protests that followed.

“Hun Sen is weaker than a woman; he dares not to challenge for re-election,” Ms. Sovantha shouted to protesters in December 2013. “He appears on TV and asks ‘What did I do wrong?’ Uncles, aunties, let me frankly ask: Who has made you suffer so much?”

“Hun Sen!” the crowd replied, as Ms. Sovantha filmed herself beaming for another clip.

Then suddenly, a month after the government in January 2014 violently repressed the CNRP’s protests across Phnom Penh, Kem Monovithya, the eldest daughter of Mr. Sokha, distributed a statement effectively expelling Ms. Sovantha from the party.

“The CNRP would like to clarify that Ms. Thy Sovantha is not involved with the CNRP,” said the statement, issued on February 1.

“I am worried. I wonder that she is CPP spy,” said Eng Ponlork, a younger brother of senior CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang and the founder of the “I Love Cambodia Hot News II” page, in the following days.

There was evidence that Ms. Sovantha was a CPP plant, Mr. Ponlork explained, and was secretly a partner of CPP activist Phe Sovannarith, who, during the election campaign, served as her main antagonist on Facebook and vigorously defended the CPP.

“I don’t know in the future what [the CPP] are going to do with Sovantha’s popularity, but…some CNRP members are very worried,” Mr. Ponlork said, explaining that he was worried by damning chat logs between Ms. Sovantha and Mr. Sovannarith.

For many, the CNRP’s messy public purging of the popular high-school student bordered on the farcical—and that impression was not helped by her seemingly mature response, taking the expulsion on the chin and saying she still supported the CNRP.

“I think Ms. Monovithya should not worry,” Ms. Sovantha said in October 2014, after more public attacks on her alleged plans to turn on the CNRP.

“What she said has no evidence,” she said. “It’s not good for the CNRP or for her.”

The move also did little to reduce her popularity, and she continued to produce videos for her almost half-a-million followers, even driving to Siem Reap City in November to support Mr. Rainsy after he said he would fly there to face down an arrest threat.

Yet that changed in March, when audio recordings allegedly between Mr. Sokha—the CNRP vice president—and a mistress were leaked on Facebook. In one clip, the man claims Ms. Sovantha is using the CNRP to defraud supporters in the U.S.

With university student Srey Chamroeun launching a campaign to force Mr. Sokha to respond to the accusations that he took a mistress or resign from the CNRP, Ms. Sovantha joined the campaign.

Accusing Mr. Sokha of “sex trafficking” for taking a mistress to Bangkok, she also launched a $1 million civil case for defamation over the the telephone calls—and called for him to step down as an opposition leader.

“If you vote for the CNRP, it means supporting a cheap and sexually addicted person and supporting the act of adultery,” Ms. Sovantha said at a press conference in May, seated next to Mr. Chamroeun.

Thy Sovantha shoots a video of herself at a marker on the Vietnam border during a CNRP-led trip to Svay Rieng province in July last year. (Alex Willemyns/The Cambodia Daily)
Thy Sovantha shoots a video of herself at a marker on the Vietnam border during a CNRP-led trip to Svay Rieng province in July last year. (Alex Willemyns/The Cambodia Daily)

“If [Mr. Sokha] leads the country or holds a bigger position, I think that this country will be full of debauchery,” Ms. Sovantha said a few days later. “If the party is without Kem Sokha, it won’t disappear.”

Although many supporters interpreted the campaign against Mr. Sokha as part of a well-coordinated attack organized by the CPP, Ms. Sovantha insisted that she still supported the CNRP and was criticizing its leader out of concern for the party’s reputation.

Still, the activist’s sudden attack on Mr. Sokha led her popularity to rapidly tank. In May, her former fans began a mass campaign to “unlike” her page, which was soon suspended, just as she ramped up her personal NGO’s public forums in the provinces.

When Ms. Sovantha reopened the page last month, her once popular posts turned into online arenas for her old supporters to compete in using the most vulgar descriptions possible to attack her.

Having enraged her once massive network of opposition-aligned supporters, however, Ms. Sovantha had apparently made some new fans on the other side of the political divide.

Almost two years on from her calls for Mr. Hun Sen to resign, the activist was applauded in a speech on Friday by the prime minister, who had only praise for her environmental work in Koh Kong province’s beleaguered Areng Valley.

“Thy Sovantha, the active Facebook user, once led a group to the Areng Valley, and that’s a movement for protection [of the forests] that should be encouraged to make them continue,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

Ms. Sovantha responded by offering her first public praise of the prime minister.

“I, Thy Sovantha, would like to thank and respect to Samdech Techo Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, who has admired me for protecting the forests in Areng Valley,” Ms. Sovantha wrote.

“I wish that Samdech Techo and his family have good health and succeed over all obstacles.”

Mr. Sovichea, the CNRP campaign manager who brought Ms. Sovantha into the party in 2013 and serves as secretary-general of its steering committee, said on Monday that he first noticed the popular activist’s recalcitrance toward the CNRP in early 2014.

“She started to change after she had problems with Kem Monovithya and started to connect with Phe Sovannarith,” Mr. Sovichea said, referring to the CPP activist. “Phe Sovannarith…works with Chea Chamroeun, who is a high politician in the CPP.”

“They have created this group to do some work together—Chea Chamroeun, Srey Chamroeun, Phe Sovannarith and Thy Sovantha. They campaign together to attack the CNRP and Kem Sokha,” he said.

Mr. Sovichea claimed that Mr. Sovannarith and the younger Mr. Chamroeun had met at the elder Mr. Chamroeun’s now-defunct university before the 2013 election—before drawing Ms. Sovantha into their fold when the CNRP expelled her.

Having remained close to Ms. Sovantha during her time in the CNRP, Mr. Sovichea said his only explanation for her switch was the promise of increased fame and wealth.

“She wanted the money and the benefits, so she goes to the CPP. The problem that happened with her and Kem Monovithya was only a small thing. You can consider it an alibi to attack the CNRP,” he said.

Ms. Sovantha has long been dogged by questions about the source of her wealth—with critics noting her constant Facebook advertisements and a new Lexus SUV—but has always attributed the money to her family’s businesses.

Ms. Sovantha’s changed affiliations is not an issue that many now want to discuss, with Ms. Monovithya, the CNRP’s deputy public affairs director, having since October 2014 declined to speak on the record about her.

Mr. Sovannarith, who has also helped lead the campaign against Mr. Sokha, did not respond to requests for comment. Ms. Sovantha twice declined to be interviewed, hanging up on a reporter once and then scheduling an interview that did not eventuate.

Mr. Chamroeun, the young university student who has been the most prominent campaigner against Mr. Sokha in recent months, also declined to be interviewed. Yet the student has never denied being a friend of Ms. Sovantha—the pair have openly communicated on his Facebook page since early 2014.

“I know her because I used to join in many social activities with her. Anytime she went to any region or donated stuff from her foundation, or went to the border, we went with her,” Mr. Chamroeun said in an interview on March 25.

Yim Sovann, a CNRP spokesman and lawmaker, who initially opposed Ms. Sovantha’s expulsion, said on Tuesday he had no opinion on what led the party’s former star activist to drift toward the CPP.

“History is history,” he said. “Let the people judge—you can see the reaction on her Facebook.”

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