Government Mouthpieces Have Roots in Opposition

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan has little trouble these days conjuring up attacks on the country’s opposition leaders, describing Sam Rainsy as a “racist” with a Vietnamese mother and Kem Sokha as “a puppet of the U.S.” engaged in sex slavery.

The two heads of the CNRP, Mr. Siphan has said, are bent on “creating a state of civil war” in Cambodia, with Mr. Sokha “a communist [who] does not support decentralization” and Mr. Rainsy “a national liar.”

Phay Siphan, left, and Keo Remy
Phay Siphan, left, and Keo Remy

Prime Minister Hun Sen, on the other hand, is a “really brave” democrat who “enjoys a general popularity” due to the peace and development he has brought to the country, according to Mr. Siphan.

It’s a marked difference from his disposition in the 2000s, when Mr. Siphan was a lawmaker candidate for Mr. Rainsy’s opposition party and later an anti-government radio host for Mr. Sokha’s human rights group, former colleagues said on Monday.

“He was a very political person, and against the government on social justice and corruption. He was quite often talking on the radio about this,” said Pa Nguon Teang, who worked with Mr. Siphan at Mr. Sokha’s Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) in 2004.

“For example, during the funeral for Chea Vichea, the popular union leader who was shot dead in broad daylight in 2004, Phay Siphan was our live broadcaster from the ground near the Independence Monument,” he said.

“He strongly attacked Prime Minister Hun Sen concerning human rights violations and the killing of Chea Vichea,” he added. “He was a mentor to our team.”

Mr. Nguon Teang was a deputy president to Mr. Sokha at CCHR, but now heads the Cambodian Center for Independent Media. He said Mr. Siphan worked at CCHR from January to around October 2004, helping start the group’s Voice of Democracy (VOD) news program.

“A few months later, we saw him joining the CPP,” he said. “I was not surprised. He was an opportunist. Wherever he can get a position, can get benefits, he goes there, and then starts to criticize the other side.”

Before Mr. Siphan rejoined the CPP around December 2004—he had been kicked out as a senator for the party in 2001—and also before his time at CCHR, he was briefly a Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) official, leading its campaign in Kompong Chhnang province before the 2003 election.

“He criticized the government a lot about corruption, our society, and injustices,” recalled CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang, who had helped Mr. Siphan into the the SRP as the party’s secretary-general.

Mr. Chhay Eang said that Mr. Siphan was a particularly aggressive voice in the opposition during the six months he was a member.

“Democracy can grow, but it’s not easy until you grow it with blood—that’s what he said when he was with the activist party,” Mr. Chhay Eang said.

“He used to talk about social injustice, corruption in society, the leader is a dictator, but when he left to go to the ruling party, it’s a democracy!”

On Monday, Mr. Siphan denied that he was ever a particularly strong opposition voice, and said he just tried to use his various roles to help the powerless.

“You say outspoken, but at that time I was in charge of program to empower people to communicate with the local authorities. In that program, VOD, I was not opposition, we were an NGO and we just tried to help and empower people,” Mr. Siphan said.

“It was not like Pa Nguon Teang and Kem Sokha, who had a hidden agenda,” he said. “I was not Kem Sokha’s slave. But we had a principle to help people communicate with their local authorities.”

As for his time in Mr. Rainsy’s opposition party, Mr. Siphan denied that his move there from the CPP had constituted a defection, and also denied he actually wanted to become an opposition lawmaker.

“I did not switch. I just tried to help people in the Sam Rainsy Party in the constituency in Kompong Chhnang. It was only for six months, and I did not want a position,” he said.

Asked about Mr. Chhay Eang’s memories about his suggestion that “blood” was necessary to build democracy, Mr. Siphan said “I have no idea about that.”

“Put it this way, liberty does not come from the sky. That’s what I shared with everyone then. Sometimes that could come across as ‘use blood,’ but that doesn’t mean that I said to use blood,” he said.

Mr. Siphan does not stand alone as a prominent government official with a close history with Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha who the CPP now relies on to be one of its main attack dogs against the opposition leaders.

Keo Remy, a former spokesman for the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit who now heads the government’s human right committee, is another. His committee last week released a provocative video warning the “excessive use of rights” could lead Cambodia to descend into civil warfare like Syria.

Mr. Remy is unique among defectors in having served in prominent roles for all three of its major opponents before moving to the ruling party.

He first served as a lawmaker after the 1998 election for Prince Norodom Ranarridh’s Funcinpec party, before defecting to Mr. Rainsy’s SRP in March 2003—winning a seat as a lawmaker at that year’s election.

When Mr. Sokha’s Human Rights Party was founded in June 2007, Mr. Remy again defected—but failed to win a seat for his new party at the 2008 election. He defected to the CPP in October that year.

“I have been with the opposition against the CPP since the 1980s. I am exhausted, and I am tired of opposing the government,” Mr. Remy said upon his defection. “The CPP leaders…are good at politics.”

Mr. Remy, who could not be reached on Monday, had praised his new leader’s democratic style upon joining Mr. Sokha’s party in 2007. But since his defection to the CPP, he has changed his tune—saving his praise for Mr. Hun Sen.

“The leaders of the opposition party always use propaganda on people and stoke the anger of the people and workers to hate the rich people and employers,” he said last year. “These concepts are communist concepts.”

Amid the CNRP’s protests in 2014 against the previous year’s election, Mr. Remy called a press conference specifically to denounce Mr. Rainsy as a purveyor of the “complete lie” who could not compare to Mr. Hun Sen, whose kindness, he added, “is as big as the ocean.”

Chhim Phal Virun, one of three spokesman for the CPP, also has his roots close to Mr. Sokha, having been head of the CCHR’s education department before leaving in 2006, claiming that Mr. Sokha was embezzling money.

He became a pro-CPP commentator, often defending the party on TV before his appointment as spokesman last year. Mr. Phal Virun declined to speak about his time at CCHR on Monday.

CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay, who has served as an outspoken critic of the CPP government in each of the five electoral terms since 1993, said that it no longer surprised him when figures like Mr. Siphan, Mr. Remy and Mr. Phal Virun turned up in prominent roles in the ruling party.

“It’s not based on ideology, but personal interests, when they run around from one place to another for personal gains,” Mr. Chhay said. “It’s not really too complicated to explain or to understand.”

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