Speaking in public for the first time in more than a month, besieged CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha on Sunday said that support for the opposition party has only been growing stronger amid the government’s far-reaching prosecution of claims he took a mistress.
Mr. Sokha has adopted a policy of “don’t answer, don’t respond, don’t argue” to the claims since they first emerged two months ago, but his silence had been growing conspicuous as officials last week arrested human rights workers and an opposition official in the case.
At a CNRP rally at its Svay Rieng province headquarters on Sunday, Mr. Sokha said he was happy to stand by and watch as the government’s attacks only led more people to come to support the opposition.
“We see the people, the general population—not the people already inside the CNRP infrastructure—but the general population, and even some people who have never supported the CNRP, have started to show affection and support for the CNRP,” Mr. Sokha said.
“You’ve seen it. You at the grassroots know better than I do,” he added. “What are the regular people saying? They’re saying: ‘Tell the leaders—just wait for that day—the election will be a victory,’” he added.
“If we did not have this solid infrastructure, if we did not have the general population showing such affection for us, we would not be able to walk forward like this. This storm is a very heavy one,” he added.
Mr. Sokha then repeated that it was not necessary for him to respond to specific attacks. For the past two months, the government has pressed him from all directions over accusations that he had an affair with 25-year-old hairdresser Khom Chandaraty—who denied the affair before rescinding her denials last month during questioning for charges of “prostitution.”
After admitting to the affair, Ms. Chandaraty accused a number of staff from rights group Adhoc, the opposition commune chief and also a U.N. official of convincing her to lie to protect Mr. Sokha. All but the U.N official have since been arrested by authorities.
“It’s not necessary to respond,” Mr. Sokha said on Sunday. “The people respond instead of us. Why are the people responding? The people know better than we do. They hurt more than our leaders do. That’s why I keep on standing up.”
However, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Mr. Sokha was simply trying to distract people from his sex scandal.
“He’s just manipulating things. For the time being, the CNRP supporters seem so divided and like they are fighting each other for domination. There’s too much division,” Mr. Siphan said.
“For example, they are focusing on Kem Sokha’s personal issues and they don’t have much time for other issues. They are in serious damage control, and I don’t see them increasing their support,” he said.
Mr. Siphan added he was confident that the CPP would win an election if one was held today, and said he was not concerned that the 2018 national election could give the party the same shock it got in 2013.
“No. It won’t be similar. In 2013, there was a number of issues that they lied to the people about, like increasing salaries, reforming education, and grassroots issues like service provision, and we have been very active in reform,” he said.
Kem Ley, head of the “Khmer for Khmer” grassroots political advocacy group, said that while he also believed the CNRP had internal problems, it did not seem to matter.
“They have touched the hearts of the people. There are no opinion polls, but based on my observations, although the internals of the CNRP are terrible, the people are getting up behind them, and they are keeping up great momentum,” Mr. Ley said.
“They keep up their activities, even as some of their people are imprisoned and others are in court. It doesn’t matter. You can also see on Facebook, there are more and more campaigns against the ruling party.”
Mr. Ley said the CNRP was suffering from the attacks on its leadership and the absence of opposition leader Sam Rainsy—who is living in France to avoid a prison sentence here—but likened watching the CPP’s attacks to watching a child beat a snake.
“Even a snake, even when the head is far away, the tail can still be very strong. For the CNRP, their head is in trouble—one is away, and the other is in a political game—but the body and tail are coping and moving in a united form forward,” Mr. Ley said.
“They are fighting the head but stimulating the body.”