CPP Speechless Amid Search for Spokesman

Speaking for six hours at the convening of the National Assembly in September 2013, Prime Minister Hun Sen called for a new era of responsiveness from the CPP government.

After his ruling party’s shock losses at last year’s national election, Mr. Hun Sen warned the leaders of the party to re-engage with an angered electorate or risk alienating itself completely.

“We have many mirrors to use if we want to use them and we learn to accept the reality, including a platform for public consultation with the people,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

A year on, the message seems to have skipped past the CPP’s upper echelons, with the governing party currently missing a mouthpiece.

The ruling party’s voluble senior lawmaker Cheam Yeap, a longtime de facto spokesman for the CPP, inexplicably went silent more than two months ago.

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, a former CPP spokesman, said Tuesday that the ruling party has been actively searching for a new spokesman without luck.

“No decision yet,” Mr. Kanharith said in a Facebook message. “The problem is to find somebody joyfully accepting this post.”

“I already asked to nominate somebody who is working daily at the CPP headquarters,” he said earlier this month, when asked when the CPP would choose a spokesman.

Mr. Kanharith long served as the CPP’s mouthpiece but has withdrawn from the role in recent years, rarely answering his phone and preferring to communicate through Facebook, leaving official duties to Mr. Yeap.

Yet the long-serving CPP lawmaker suddenly changed his phone number in August. Mr. Yeap’s aides refuse to provide his new number, and his personal assistant said earlier this month that he is no longer available to the media.

In recent months, the vacuum left by Mr. Yeap has grown conspicuous as the CPP and opposition CNRP have sparred over the details of their July 22 political agreement, with other CPP lawmakers and officials often reticent to speak on behalf of the highly hierarchical party.

The CPP periodically releases unsigned statements defending itself during times of upheaval, and appoints high-ranking government officials to speak after events such as talks with the CNRP.

But its positions are otherwise left up for the public to guess at until Mr. Hun Sen himself touches upon them in a speech.

Mr. Kanharith acknowledged that part of the trouble in selecting a new spokesman was finding someone who will take questions from the media without being afraid of upsetting the party’s leaders.

“This is part of the job,” he said via Facebook.

Phay Siphan, who is readily available to reporters by phone in his capacity as the main government spokesman, draws a theoretical distinction between the CPP as an institution and the executive branch of government.

“I have to respect my responsibilities, and I work for the government,” said Mr. Siphan, a CPP secretary of state at the Council of Ministers.

“The responsibility of the CPP and of the government is different. I am in the executive branch and focus on executive-branch accountability,” he said.

“Khieu Kanharith spoke on behalf of the CPP most of the time in the past,” Mr. Siphan added. “The way I understand this one, His Excellency Chheang Vun usually speaks on behalf of the CPP because he’s a lawmaker and a member of the party.”

Mr. Vun, who officially serves as spokesman for the CPP-led National Assembly, said Tuesday he could not, in fact, speak for the ruling party.

“No, I’m not the spokesman for the CPP but I’m the spokesman for the National Assembly,” Mr. Vun said, adding that he did not know who could speak for his party.

“I don’t know. Go and ask the CPP,” Mr. Vun said.

The CNRP, in contrast to the ruling party, has a number of senior officials who will readily speak to the media on behalf of the opposition, including spokesmen Yim Sovann and Yem Ponhearith, and public affairs director Mu Sochua.

Even CNRP President Sam Rainsy and Vice President Kem Sokha provide their personal phone numbers to the media.

Ms. Sochua suggested Tuesday that the CPP had little interest in locating an active and able spokesman.

“I’m very surprised they don’t have a spokesman as they have many people who are qualified,” Ms. Sochua said. “They have been ruling the country for more than two decades. Can they really not find a spokesman?”

Moeun Chhean Nariddh, executive director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said the CPP was shooting itself in the foot by being so secretive.

“It is crucial for the media to maintain balance and impartiality and we can only do that with full access to information from all sides of an issue,” Mr. Chhean Nariddh said.

“If the CPP doesn’t talk to the media, how can we fill in their missing information?”

willemyns@cambodiadaily.com, naren@cambodiadaily.com

© 2014, All rights reserved.