Despite efforts to banish him from Cambodia, strip him of his political titles and eliminate his connection to the political opposition, Sam Rainsy’s loudspeaker just gets louder
By Ben Paviour
Five months ago, Sam Rainsy surprised almost everyone and walked away from his political party.
He had led the CNRP through a contentious national election, a doomed detente and a fresh round of lawsuits that sent him packing for Paris. Then, in February, with the CPP on the verge of passing legislation that would punish the CNRP for his court cases, Mr. Rainsy stepped down as party president.
Pundits wondered what would become of the opposition icon. Would Mr. Rainsy pull the strings of his old party from Paris or fade into irrelevance in a Facebook photostream of French bike rides? Cut off from his country and party, would the Cambodian public—and Prime Minister Hun Sen—still take notice of his strident criticism?
The last two weeks seem to have settled those questions.
First came a video, posted to Mr. Rainsy’s Facebook page last week linking the CPP’s origins to “yuon” Vietnamese communists, striking the most sensitive nerve in the ruling party’s political body and using a word that can have racist undertones.
Less than 48 hours later, Mr. Hun Sen called his rival an “endless warmonger” and urged lawmakers to punish the CNRP for its former leader’s rhetoric by amending the Law on Political Parties to punish parties that cooperate or advertise affiliations with those convicted of crimes.
“It’s very serious,” CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun said yesterday of Mr. Rainsy’s accusations as his party sped the proposed changes through the National Assembly. “There are not any countries that would allow that kind of party to survive until now.”
By thrusting the limelight back on Mr. Rainsy, who resigned as lawmakers submitted a first set of changes to the law, commentators say the prime minister might be gifting his nemesis the only kind of ammunition Mr. Rainsy has left: more attention.
“It’s clear now that Hun Sen is very afraid of me—his best enemy—and that just my name, my photo, my voice, my shadow or any representation of me makes him crazy,” he wrote in an email yesterday.
Mr. Rainsy has spent decades nettling Mr. Hun Sen in feuds that have spawned a stable of farmyard metaphors from analysts and the prime minister: catching the mouse, beating the dog, crushing the snake.
In past Parisian exiles, Mr. Rainsy had to go through radio and newspaper outlets to reach a mass audience.
But since he joined Facebook in 2013, Mr. Rainsy has been increasingly able to leapfrog media gatekeepers, putting him at the center of a growing number of opposition-aligned Facebook pages circulating government criticism, rumors, leaks and anti-Vietnamese sentiment, which have pricked the CPP into action on several occasions.
“With a single post, Sam Rainsy’s page can pull [the] trigger on the whole political climate in Cambodia,” said Bong Chan-sambath, an international relations student at Pannasastra University and a writer for the politics forum Politikoffee.
“There is no doubt that if Rainsy slows down a bit on the rhetoric, the climate would be a lot more pleasant. But then the question continues: ‘What is the definition of being an opposition politician?’” he asked.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a member of the CNRP’s steering committee, said the CPP, and especially the prime minister, were “very upset by the fact that Sam Rainsy is very free to speak out freely and say things that we cannot say.”
“Whatever Sam Rainsy would say, would write on his Facebook page…remains very helpful for the CNRP,” he said.
Astrid Noren-Nilsson, an associate senior lecturer at Sweden’s Lund University specializing in Cambodian politics, said Mr. Rainsy’s rhetoric continued to fan the flames of opposition against the government.
“Maintaining the element of anger and confrontation could make the difference for keeping the opposition momentum going through the 2018 elections,” she said.
Prince Thomico and Mr. Rainsy both claim that the party has no influence on the exiled figure’s media output.
Instead, the content is produced by a personal media team funded by Mr. Rainsy’s pension, rents collected as a landlord and foreign donations, he said in an email. It includes six employees in Phnom Penh producing daily news presentations and another three in France making short, documentary-style commentaries and analyses based on recent events.
Mr. Rainsy’s posts in exile have added to a pack of legal challenges that the party and most independent attorneys see as politically motivated: claims that the government orchestrated the assassination of political analyst Kem Ley, that the CPP bought “likes” for Mr. Hun Sen’s Facebook page, and that the prime minister paid social media provocateur Thy Sovantha $1 million, among others.
He also rarely misses a chance to connect the ruling party to “yuon” and the Khmer Rouge regime, pushing those angles on anniversary posts of both the April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge invasion of Phnom Penh and the January 7, 1979, Vietnamese toppling of that regime.
(For his part, Mr. Rainsy maintains that “yuon” was a “neutral term” that became “politically incorrect” after the 1979 invasion, and that foreign observers and journalists have been “contaminated by the CPP propaganda” to connect the rhetoric with racism.)
He also posts whispers and leaks collected from unidentified sources, including a leak last month purporting to show “secret instructions given by Hun Sen” laying out how the government would handle Mr. Rainsy’s eventual return to Cambodia.
The missives target the more than 4.1 million people who have liked Mr. Rainsy’s Facebook page, and potentially many more who see the content elsewhere.
The Facebook page gives Mr. Rainsy arguably the largest megaphone a government critic has ever held, offering a pungent counter-narrative to the peace-and-stability programming of CPP-affiliated mass media.
Though Mr. Rainsy still sees himself as a politician, and CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the latest legislative changes were being written to “kill Sam Rainsy’s political career,” Mr. Rainsy seems to have become something else: a loudmouth the prime minister can’t find a way to shut up.
“He could be seen more as an activist,” said Ou Virak, director of the Future Forum think tank. “And that’s actually a new role for him.”
As Cambodia’s highest-profile provocateur, Mr. Rainsy enters a Facebook ring crowded with pro-opposition pages that have sprung up to criticize the government wherever they see an opening.
Those pages include Brady N Young, run by Yang Nuy, a California-based activist who was ousted from the CNRP chapter there over a video he posted last year demanding that Mr. Hun Sen prove that his eldest son, Hun Manet, was not actually fathered by a Vietnamese official.
The post appeared to strike a nerve with the prime minister, who in March leaked what he claimed were his own WhatsApp messages asking CNRP lawmaker Mao Monyvann why CNRP President Kem Sokha did not expel members who circulated the rumors.
Mr. Hun Sen’s wrath hasn’t stopped Mr. Nuy, who raised the idea to his 90,000 followers as recently as Sunday.
Lt. Gen. Manet filed a defamation suit last year against a Facebook user, Cham Chany, another popular critic, after he claimed to have insider information linking the prime minister’s son to the illegal timber trade.
But the user behind the page, which now has almost 300,000 followers, said last year that he lived outside the country, out of reach of Cambodian courts.
Some pages—and comments from users—make Mr. Rainsy’s rants look tame.
“When will you cut your head and throw it away?” Pang Sokheoun, the overseas administrator of the popular Khmer Sovannaphumi page, asked the prime minister, referring to Mr. Hun Sen’s famous pledge to do so if he failed to stop illegal logging on land concessions.
Another user responded with a photoshopped image of Mr. Hun Sen in a noose.
None of this has been lost on the prime minister, whose party’s near-monopoly on domestic news outlets—and growing social media clout—is threatened by a handful of lone wolves who are uncowed by his laws.
“Those people [go] beyond freedom of expression,” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said on Tuesday. “They have no right to insult or use the barbaric words” against Mr. Hun Sen, who was lawfully elected by the majority of voters.
Though courts have convicted several Facebook users inside the country for posts in cases that drew international condemnation, those abroad have proven a pricklier thorn in the CPP’s side.
Mr. Siphan said the government could press the CNRP to remove the users from the party, as it did with Mr. Nuy and ultimately with Mr. Rainsy. It could even ask the French government to extradite Mr. Rainsy if he threatened national security, though Mr. Siphan said the state had never made such a request.
“Everyone has to protect their integrity,” Mr. Siphan said.
But Ms. Noren-Nilsson said there were few signs of Mr. Rainsy or other Facebook users backing down.
“Probably he is enjoying being able to play the role of the maverick, as the one liberating consequence of his political sidelining,” she wrote in an email.
Mr. Rainsy himself appears unsatisfied merely standing on the sidelines.
“My main desire is to return to Cambodia and to serve my native country in any capacity,” he wrote in an email on Wednesday.
He was less circumspect in a cartoon posted to his Facebook showing a small, beer-gutted prime minister backed by two police squaring off with a chained, chiseled opposition leader in what the caption called “a competition for premiership.”
Yet Prince Thomico said the prime minister saw the CNRP—not Mr. Rainsy—as his main existential threat.
“To me, Sam Rainsy is just a scapegoat,” he said. “The real target is the CNRP.”
(Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean)