A little over a week had gone by since recordings were leaked of Prime Minister Hun Sen advising Kem Sokha—then head of the Human Rights Party—to poach members of the rival Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).
The premier was gleeful.
“Kem Sokha’s party is the party that I helped create,” he boasted in June 2011. “It is true that I helped create it.”
The leak, with its whiffs of prime ministerial meddling, successfully sowed distrust between the two parties on the eve of a potential merger.
Mr. Sokha said the call had simply concerned his request to use Olympic Stadium for a conference. But it took another year for him and SRP leader Sam Rainsy to overcome factional animosity and form the CNRP, a party that took Mr. Hun Sen by surprise with its strong 2013 election results.
Six years later, Mr. Hun Sen is once again a happy participant in a leaked conversation with Mr. Sokha.
“I did talk with Kem Sokha and the plan that made Kem Sokha become party president was orchestrated by me,” he said in a speech on Monday. “Will Kem Sokha talking with me cause a split?”
There seems little doubt what outcome Mr. Hun Sen would prefer. But after a yearlong deluge of leaks that have rocked his family and his party as well as the opposition—including a batch of apparent text messages from 20 top officials forwarded by Mr. Rainsy to media outlets last week—will the strategy sow the kinds of scandals for which its sponsors seem to be hoping? And with the tools of surveillance becoming ever more accessible outside government, are saboteurs engaged in a race to the bottom?
“When people can’t have private conversations, everyone loses,” said Sophal Ear, author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.”
“It’s Orwellian,” he wrote in an email on Tuesday. But “like everything else in Cambodia, we’ve seen this before.”
Mr. Sophal pointed to the example of Prince Norodom Sirivudh, whom, as Funcinpec party’s secretary-general in 1995, was allegedly recorded making a threat against Mr. Hun Sen.
“I will kill Hun Sen,” he reportedly says, in a recording played to diplomats. “I always do as I say.”
Sources at the time said it was a Funcinpec member—possibly a rival—who sent the recording to the government, where it eventually landed in the hands of Mr. Hun Sen.
The prime minister ordered tanks to surround Prince Sirivudh’s house in November of that year, eventually jailing the prince and brokering his exile to France in spite of the prince’s denials of wrongdoing.
Analysts at the time said the case was a clear strategic win for Mr. Hun Sen, who was then sharing power with Funcinpec and had an interest in encouraging disunity among his rivals.
“Sirivudh was set up by Funcinpec,” one unnamed government source told reporters on December 7 that year. “Hun Sen then used the situation in a very Machiavellian way.”
But even if this week’s leaks have precedents, the relentless pace of the leaks—and their ability to touch senior CPP officials—are new.
The latest round of leaks began in late February of last year with audio recordings purporting to be of Mr. Sokha talking to an alleged mistress.
Just as in 2011, the leaks were released by pro-CPP Deum Ampil news. But in this case, as in the ones that followed, it was Facebook that enabled their spread.
The ensuing scandal and “bribery”-related government investigation eventually netted Mr. Sokha, his alleged mistress and five current and former employees of the rights NGO Adhoc.
A fresh round of leaks kicked off in November, when a YouTube user posted a video scrolling through a Facebook chat between Mr. Hun Sen’s son Hun Manith, a major general in the army and director of the Defense Ministry’s military intelligence unit, and Thy Sovantha, a social media provocateur. The chats, the authenticity of which were confirmed by a CPP spokesman, show Major General Manith encouraging Ms. Sovantha to stir up protests against Mr. Sokha.
Days later, the prime minister himself was accused by Facebook users of promising Ms. Sovantha $1 million toward the same end after an anonymous leak of a conversation on the messaging app Line surfaced.
The trickle of private chatter became a deluge in the early months of this year, as government mouthpiece Fresh News publicized successive leaks from a Facebook page called “Sei Ha.”
There were photos of what appeared to be CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang indulging a gambling habit he claimed to have kicked, a voice allegedly belonging to his colleague Ho Vann sweet-talking a mistress and even Mr. Rainsy purportedly flirting with a waitress.
Then, last week, Mr. Rainsy forwarded an email to media outlets that he said had been sent to him anonymously that purported to show text messages from Mr. Hun Sen’s family, top officials in the ruling party and their associates.
Paul Chambers, a professor of international relations at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, said Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Hun Sen were both playing with fire by trying to capitalize on the leaks.
“The revelations can easily show new negative aspects about Hun Sen—if the veracity of the leaks is not itself called into question,” he wrote in an email on Tuesday, adding that Mr. Rainsy, too, risked “damaging his reputation in his party.”
“The premier has the least to lose since his goal is simply to enhance doubt about Rainsy within the CNRP and increase opposition party divisions,” he said.
Cynthia Wong, a senior researcher on the internet and human rights for Human Rights Watch, said it was “quite easy” for governments to either work with telecoms operators or purchase equipment from the private sector to intercept calls and text messages.
“It is just a small step from unchecked and unregulated surveillance to deploying intercepted calls or messages in a politically motivated way,” she wrote in an email, citing Russia as an example where the behavior was more common.
“It isn’t clear how opposition party members or other people would get access to some of this information,” she added. “But there are ways for private entities to purchase increasingly inexpensive mobile phone interception tools (called IMSI-catchers or stingrays), though they are still not cheap unless you have technical expertise.”
How will the fallout affect the fragile opposition? One answer might come from CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann.
Mr. Sovann declined to comment on the leaks on Tuesday, but praised Mr. Sokha’s “very good” handling of Mr. Hun Sen on Sunday, dismissing claims of collusion as baseless.
In 2011, though, as a SRP spokesman, Mr. Sovann was not so forgiving of his current party president after a similar call.
“It is clear to us they receive advice from the top leader of the CPP,” he said in June.
“They talk about money, they talk about how to disrupt the SRP.”
“Funcinpec and HRP weren’t created by the CPP, but they serve the CPP,” he added.