Thousands of supporters packed out the indoor arena at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium for the fledgling Human Rights Party’s first congress Sunday, where party president Kem Sokha pledged to build a fairer and more democratic society.
Kem Sokha, who ran unopposed to win the party presidency at the congress, told the applauding crowd that he had established the party in response to their needs, adding that it would serve, protect and develop the country.
“It is time for Cambodia to have a fully democratic party that has emerged from the people for the people,” said Kem Sokha, who formed the party after resigning as president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights earlier this year.
“The Human Rights Party not only wants to improve people’s living standards, it will convert Khmer society into a society that provides choices and equal chances for the people,” he said.
In raised hand votes by the crowd, the congress also elected Pen Sovann, a former prime minister from the communist 1980s, as one of the party’s deputy presidents, along with former SRP lawmaker Keo Remy. Constitutional Council member Son Soubert was voted in as chairman of the party’s board of directors.
The party’s supporters were all given free yellow caps and t-shirts. Some bore the party’s logo, while others were emblazoned with large photos of Kem Sokha on the back. The HRP also provided free transport for some people from the provinces, though Kem Sokha told the crowd he believed they had been motivated to attend by patriotism.
“I believe that those who are present are here because they love the country,” Kem Sokha said.
The CPP’s National Assembly First Vice President Nguon Nhel said his party is not concerned by the HRP. The CPP in fact stands to benefit from the new party, as it will likely splinter the opposition vote, he added.
“The CPP benefits from the Human Rights Party,” he said, adding that the population still feels grateful to the ruling party for ousting the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
“The people have owed the CPP their gratitude. The CPP has given people their lives and freedom,” he said. “Kem Sokha is not an outstanding individual,” he added.
SRP leader Sam Rainsy also said he was not concerned that the HRP could pose a serious challenge to his own party.
“The SRP’s tree is 12 years old. We already have fruit. We have no concern,” he said. “If a tree has just been planted for a year, there is no fruit and no shape.”
But Kem Sokha’s supporters said they were happy to be presented with a new political alternative.
Kuy Korn, a 60-year-old HRP supporter from Prey Veng province, said he was particularly attracted by the party’s policy of imposing a two-term limit on prime ministers.
“I love the party for the two-mandate policy,” he said.
“The current prime minister has been staying in the position for too long. Now there is corruption and we have to pay for public services,” he added. “We want a change in leadership.”
El Oeun, 73, from Kompong Chhnang province, said he joined the HRP because he believed it would ensure better human rights.
“I like Kem Sokha because he can give us freedom of expression as long as we don’t offend someone, and he explains to us about human rights,” he said.
Standing in yellow t-shirts just outside the stadium, one group of HRP supporters said they had just defected from Funcinpec as they believe Kem Sokha is better able to develop the country.
“I left Funcinpec because [the party’s former president] Prince Norodom Ranariddh left us alone,” added Yos Ra, a 41-year-old from Takeo province.
Funcinpec spokesman Nouv Sovathero said his party’s supporters have the right to jump ship.
“People always want someone new and they can try something new,” he said. “But those who are Funcinpec lovers will remain with the party.”
Kek Galabru, founder of local rights group Licadho, said she was concerned that if there are too many political parties in opposition, their power to check the government will be undermined.
“NGOs want a strong opposition party to provide a check and balance,” she said. “If the opposition voices are split, they will be weakened.”
Son Soubert said by telephone that the HRP would not divide the opposition vote, adding that Kem Sokha wants to unite with other opposition parties to prevent this from happening.
“The Human Rights Party does not split the votes. We just accept the defectors,” he said. “Everyone must find a formula to unite.”
Pen Sovann, who briefly served as prime minister during the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in 1981, said by telephone that he looked forward to electoral successes with the HRP in next year’s national election.
Under the current government, “people are facing difficulties with their living standards, and powerful people are stealing people’s money,” he said. “People are demanding the Human Rights Party,” he said.