Controversial amendments to the Law on Political Parties have steamrolled through the legislative process and are likely to be signed into law this week, kicking up a chorus of concerns from the opposition, civil society and international rights groups.
Among the changes forced by the legislation: a new name for the Sam Rainsy Party to comply with rules barring parties from carrying an individual’s name.
It’s deja vu for Mr. Rainsy, who was forced by the Interior Ministry to choose a new party name in 1998 after a breakaway faction of his Khmer Nation Party registered under that name.
“In order to take part in the 1998 national elections and to ensure that nobody could steal our name again, we just named our party after me,” he wrote in an email on Thursday, denying any narcissism in the choice.
Khmer Nation Party is again in the running as a moniker for the party, according to its acting president, Teav Vannol. Other options include Light of Democracy and Light of Candle. A name change will only be needed if the legislation goes into effect, Mr. Vannol said.
And unlike other provisions of the law, this one will likely have little impact on the opposition. Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) members joined the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in a 2012 merging of forces with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party, and the SRP lives on only to preserve Senate seats from that year’s election.
But the changes highlight the rich pedigree of party naming in Cambodia, whose messy political theater has a way of calcifying into the homages, knock-offs and symbolism of its party names.
Experts say names matter.
“If a party has a name that doesn’t immediately evoke a positive response then extra time, money and effort has to go into explaining its philosophical outlook to voters,” said Bruce Hawker, an Australian political strategist and head of the Campaigns & Communications Group.
George Ajjan, head of the U.S.-based international political consulting firm Ajjan Associates, said he urges clients to test new names through public opinion polling to avoid unforeseen consequences, citing a party that formed in the West African country of Guinea called Guinee Pour Tous, or Guinea for All.
“Unfortunately for them, pronouncing the initials GPT together in French refers to flatulence,” he wrote in an email. “So, yes, a party’s name matters a great deal.”
Neither the Democratic Party, which pushed for a pluralistic, multi-party democracy, or the more conservative Liberal Party had those tools when they were established in Cambodia in the 1940s.
Nor did King Norodom Sihanouk, who gave up the throne and nominated himself as head of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, or People’s Socialist Community, in 1955.
The name had very specific meaning, wrote Charles Meyer, a one-time adviser to the prince, in his 1971 history “Behind the Khmer Smile.”
Rather than refer to all people, “reastr” specifically referred to citizens living under a monarchy, according to Mr. Meyer.
“The movement’s main objective was the [other] parties’ extinction…and the rounding up of their members within a big body in which personal loyalty to the previous king, now the national leader, would serve as doctrine,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, in Hanoi, revolutionary Ho Chi Minh’s Indochinese Communist Party splintered into the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) as well as respective parties for Vietnam and Laos.
Today’s ruling party celebrates that 1951 founding as its anniversary, though it was only after the 1979 invasion of Vietnam that today’s party politicians entered the fray as the Marxist-Leninist-leaning Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party. The ruling party took its current name as the Cambodian People’s Party in 1991, on the brink of a transition into both capitalism and democracy.
“Not only does the renaming of the CPP over the decades reflect the transition between different brands of socialism to a broader populist identity, but revisiting past names are also an essential part of party historiography,” wrote Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a Norwegian political scholar and author of “Cambodia’s Second Kingdom: Nation, Imagination, and Democracy.”
Some contemporary CPP critics believe the party’s name embodies outdated policies they see as oppressive.
“From what I learned in the past, the ruling party’s name seems to be communist,” said 65-year-old tuk-tuk driver Song Chhin as he paused for a break along Sisowath Quay. “They are not democratic or republican. If you say ‘democratic,’ it means freedom.”
CPP spokesman Suos Yara did not respond to questions about the party’s communist past.
The 1993 general election brought a panoply of parties into the political fold, many of which failed to last until the next election.
They chose names seemingly inspired by the democratic fervor of the moment. The Free Republican Party, Free Development Republican Party and Republican Democracy Khmer Party all jostled for ballot space.
There was pious Buddhist and anti-communist resistance leader Son Sann’s Buddhist Liberal Democracy Party (BLDP), not to be confused with the Liberal Democracy Party started by his rival, and fellow resistance leader, Sak Sutsakhan.
The BLDP met a similar fate to the SRP, with a breakaway faction led by a rival to Son Sann granted the BLDP’s name and logo in court, and Son Sann remade in an eponymous party of his own.
Two royalist parties—Funcinpec and the marginal Moulinaka—were actually acronyms of verbose French names, but only Funcinpec, led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was able to pose an Election Day threat to the CPP with its promise of an “Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia.”
Several subsequent royalist parties drew their naming heritage from King Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum, including Prince Sisowath Thomico’s Sangkum Jatiniyum Front Party, which screened footage of Sihanouk-era infrastructure projects before formally swearing to “protect the king and queen forever” in 2006, according to Ms. Noren-Nilsson.
In 2014, Prince Ranariddh also attempted to revive his moribund political fortunes with the Sangkum Reastr Reachea Tepetey, or Community of Royalist People Party, before rejoining Funcinpec.
While Mr. Sokha’s Human Rights Party nodded to his tenure as director of the respected Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Mr. Rainsy said that the CNRP’s name pointed to the downward fortunes of the country.
The reference to rescue hints at “a national challenge in that the country is going down the drain with the continuous destruction of national riches and the blind implementation of irrelevant economic and social policies offering no future for its population,” Mr. Rainsy said.
The CNRP also makes an allusion to the Kampuchea United Front for National Salvation, the precursor to the CPP that toppled the Khmer Rouge, Ms. Noren-Nilsson wrote in an email.
“By choosing this name, the CNRP makes a rival claim to represent the Cambodian people, and provides an alternative version not only of who the nation’s savior is—but also who it is that the nation needs to be saved from,” she wrote in an email.
It’s a message that has resonance with Mr. Chhin, the tuk-tuk driver, who said the country “needs to be rescued.”
“You see the forest is gone. You see the human rights violations. The people want change,” he said.
Milling nearby, 36-year-old vendor and longtime SRP supporter Lim Veasna said that new legislation and name changes wouldn’t affect what he believed was widespread opposition support.
But if he had to choose a new name, Mr. Veasna said he preferred Light of the Candle.
“It means that the light can make people understand the situation,” he said. “People want light but now they are living in the dark.”
For his part, Mr. Yara, the CPP spokesman, declined to offer his pick for the SRP.
What is important “is to serve the needs of the people,” he wrote in a message.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Vachon)
© 2017, Ben Paviour. All rights reserved.