In Leader’s Absence, Opposition Marks 10 Years

The Sam Rainsy Party expects 2,000 members from 15 prov­inces to flood into its headquarters for the party’s 10th anniversary celebration today.

But the keynote address, by op­position leader Sam Rain­sy, will be given via tel­ephone from France, where Sam Rainsy is currently in ex­ile, party officials said.

Party members said Monday that they would be celebrating the growth of an opposition party that has provided the poor and disenfranchised with a political alternative. But some observers said Sam Rainsy’s now 10-month-long ab­sence has seriously damaged the par­ty’s credibility.

Opposition party Secretary-General Eng Chhay Eang said the party is running smoothly despite Sam Rainsy’s self-imposed exile and the imprisonment of opposition lawmaker Cheam Channy, who was sentenced in August to sev­en years in prison for forming a so-called illegal armed force.

Eng Chhay Eang also brushed off a recent incident in which supporters of rogue lawmaker Khem Veasna allegedly pulled down opposition party banners in Prey Veng province, calling the case “a storm in a glass.”

The party dismissed Khem Veasna earlier this year, and re­quested that he be replaced at the As­sembly for not representing the par­ty’s views and for allegedly criticizing the monarchy, but the As­sembly did not approve the re­quest and the rebellious lawmaker still holds an opposition party seat.

“The Sam Rainsy Party is not run by one Sam Rainsy. There are now thousands of Sam Rainsys. Sam Rainsy is away for 10 months but our work is even stronger,” Eng Chhay Eang said.

But other party officials said that, realistically, it was a difficult task to convey that message to sup­porters.“We have a lot of work to convince the public that Sam Rainsy is al­ways with us and to give a guarantee that our party will survive without Sam Rainsy as a leader,” op­position lawmaker Son Chhay said.

One foreign diplomat said the par­ty appeared to be struggling, as Sam Rainsy’s return seems in­creas­ingly distant.

“It remains to be seen if the par­ty can hold itself together with its star performer, so to speak, out of the country. I think the party still centers a lot on Sam Rainsy’s popularity. Its viability is probably in question right now,” the diplomat said.

CPP and Funcinpec officials al­so expressed doubts about the par­ty, which they said was no lon­ger a serious contender in Cambo­di­an politics. “[The party] is broken down be­cause the president escaped from Cam­bodia. He does not respect the internal rules of the Assembly at all,” Funcinpec lawmaker Khieu San said.

“All the 24 [opposition lawmakers] who have seats, they never at­tend the National Assembly. The par­ty, to be strong, must be present, both their president and the mem­bers…. Are they strong or weak? I don’t know. But I see the peo­ple don’t trust them anymore.”

CPP officials said their own party’s popularity makes the Sam Rainsy Party insignificant. “CPP is not afraid of or worried by any party. We win always,” CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap stated.

But several observers said that the Sam Rainsy Party was performing admirably considering its leader’s absence.

Center for Social Development Pres­ident Chea Vannath said that, had the public not been informed of Sam Rainsy’s absence, they would likely not have noticed any change in the party.

Opposition Senator Ung Bun-Ang said party members were prepared to function without their leader. “It is hard, but not to the extent that the party will collapse,” he said.

“We have a very strong structure and a strong leadership group, even though one of our leaders is not in the country,” Ung Bun-Ang said. “We have come to the stage that the party no longer depends on one person or two persons but on many persons.”

He added that the party has be­come a lone voice of opposition, which people rely on to represent al­ternative viewpoints.

“The fact that the CPP and Fun­cinpec [have reaffirmed their coalition in recent weeks] reinforces that the Sam Rainsy Party has be­come the only alternative for the Cam­bodian people,” he said.

Party officials added that they were undertaking a party-wide, bottom-up reform that would help democratize and decentralize the party by electing—not appointing—officials from the commune level up.

Alex Sutton, resident program director for the International Republican Institute, said the party is looking to secure its place in the 2007 commune elections in order to gain momentum for 2008 na­tional elections. “When the decentralization is complete, this will be a party that…is built on a true sense of de­cen­tralization and participation,” Sut­ton said.

He added that he has spent a lot of time in the provinces, and found that enthusiasm for the party has not waned. “At the district and com­mune levels, there is still a great deal of loyalty to the party,” Sut­ton said.

But Son Chhay said he thought that, in Sam Rainsy’s absence, top-down reform within the party was more urgent than grassroots re­form. “As our party president is not here to guide us every day, it is im­­portant that the central committee ad­justs and gives a clear mandate to each member to be more re­s­­ponsible,” Son Chhay said. “Right now, we have reform that will not really benefit the party.”

But, he added, the party would not lose sight of its goal to champion people’s rights and provide a strong alternative party.

“With the abuses of the rights of the poor and powerless, without the Sam Rainsy party, they would have no one to turn to,” he said.





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