CNRP Brushes Off Week of Leaks Despite Threats

If the rumors are true, opposition lawmaker Ho Vann knew what he was getting into.

—News Analysis—

“Even though we have slept together, we should not leak information about it,” a man alleged to be Mr. Vann tells a woman in an audio recording posted to an anonymous Facebook page on Tuesday. “I am worried about it.”

cam photo scandals
CNRP lawmakers, from left, Ho Vann, Eng Chhay Eang and Yem Ponhearith.

It was the latest in a deluge of rumors posted anonymously online over the past week against CNRP lawmakers, most of them about sexual indiscretions. Prime Minister Hun Sen took time during a session of parliament on Tuesday to mention rumors that Yem Ponhearith had defiled the halls of parliament with an extramarital fling with a secretary, while photographs were spread of Eng Chhay Eang indulging a gambling habit he claimed to have kicked.

Like the other supposed scandals, the rumor was quickly picked up by the government-aligned Fresh News website and seized on by the ruling party as evidence of its rivals’ improprieties, with the National Assembly secretary-general prom­ising an investigation into Mr. Ponhearith’s alleged tryst.

“It is embarrassing,” said CPP spokesman and lawmaker Sok Eysan.

“If [the leaks] are true, then the assembly’s secretariat will take legal action against the lawmakers,” he added, without specifying what action.

But if the ruling party intended to catch the opposition with their pants down, analysts are not convinced the embarrassment will work in the CPP’s favor in the long run.

“Seems like there’s a lot more important people’s business to do than to go investigate sexual trysts between consenting adults,” said Sophal Ear, author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.”

“It just looks desperate and makes people even more cynical.”

“Sey Ha,” the Facebook page that has served as a platform for a number of the alleged leaks, claimed that Mr. Vann was caught promising a young woman money and help finding work at a garment factory in exchange for sex.

In the recording, the man says he has many lovers that he holds dearly, but frets that their affair will be made public.

“I know that it will impact pa’s honor, because there is also Facebook,” the woman says.

Reached on Wednesday, however, Mr. Vann said he had “no concern about it” and “wanted the public to consider it by themselves.”

“It’s a competitive season with the election, so anything can happen,” he said, neither confirming nor denying that it was him in the recording, and saying he had no plans to file a criminal complaint.

The recording ascribed to Mr. Vann followed a pattern set last spring, when another anonymous Facebook page posted alleged conversations between deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha and a young hairdresser. That recording set off court cases that put Mr. Sokha under house arrest for much of the year, and the imprisonment of six others accused of bribing the woman to deny the affair.

There was no official investigation into how the recordings were obtained, and the CNRP adopted a policy of not responding to personal attacks.

Anonymous leaks have also bruised the CPP, including a series of chats posted to Facebook in November that CNRP President Sam Rainsy, among others, has claimed show Mr. Hun Sen offering rabble-rousing Facebook star Thy Sovantha $1 million to campaign against Mr. Sokha.

Unlike the threats of investigation against CNRP lawmakers, those messages resulted in a defamation suit against Mr. Rainsy while officials said they had no interest in probing the veracity of the claims. Mr. Hun Sen this week threatened to seize and auction off the exiled leader’s domestic assets, including the CNRP’s Phnom Penh headquarters, if the court rules in his favor and awards him the $1 million he is asking for.

The prime minister himself has been accused of infidelity. Actress Piseth Pilika, who was murdered in broad daylight in a 1999 case that has remained unsolved, allegedly left behind a diary that details her romance with the prime minister, and fear of first lady Bun Rany.

Interior Minister spokesman Khieu Sopheak on Wednesday defended the divergent responses by authorities, saying that Mr. Hun Sen’s private affairs deserved extra protection rather than interrogation given his role as head of state.

“We don’t follow personal affairs,” he claimed, adding that the lawmakers were welcome to file criminal complaints.

With personal affairs increasingly creeping into the public domain, the leaks also raise questions about the privacy of Cambodia’s internet and telephone communications.

Mr. Hun Sen boasted last year of possessing extensive information on Mr. Sokha’s alleged mistress stored on his personal phone.

“The prime minister has a right to understand that, he has a right to know that,” government spokesman Phay Siphan said at the time.

A telecommunications law passed in December 2015 gives the government broad power to obtain data and communications, making it illegal to secretly listen in on or record communications except with “approval from a legitimate authority.” The government said in 2014 that it had plans to install surveillance equipment on the networks of telecommunications companies, leading rights groups to warn of unchecked state spying.

“There’s no definition of who is a legitimate authority or how they are competent to approve surveillance,” Craig Bradshaw, a legal consultant for Licadho, said last year, adding that there was a “total lack of transparency, accountability or safeguards for citizens’ privacy.”

Daniel McFarlane, a researcher who studies new media in Cambodia, said that smartphones were easier to hack and offered more information on their users than clunkier predecessors.

“Smartphone usage has made public figures such as lawmakers more vulnerable to surveillance through phone hacking,” he wrote in an email.

How the public reacts to whatever is uncovered is a different matter, with Facebook users peppering the latest recordings with anti-government memes.

“The sex scandal has been used again and again,” said political analyst Meas Ny.

“I don’t think this kind of scandal will be in the minds of voters,” he added. “I just have the feeling my government has lost its values.”

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