Cambodian-American Sum Sitha only visits Cambodia three times a year, but he is not prepared to let this dampen his aspirations to run the country.
A social worker from Long Beach, California, the soft-spoken 45-year-old introduced his Khmer National Party to the Cambodian media last week, declaring it the country’s only legitimate opposition.
Sum Sitha claims that his party, the name of which echoes that used by the Sam Rainsy Party until 1998—the Khmer Nation Party—has about 1 million members across 16 provinces.
“I liked the name so I named it the Khmer National Party. I have no intention to steal from anyone. I just submitted the name and the Ministry of Interior did not reject it,” he said by telephone.
“I set up this party because I understand the Sam Rainsy Party is not a true opposition. I will oppose the government and all political parties if they commit wrongs,” he said.
The KNP’s headquarters is located in Tuol Kok district, where Sum Sitha says a staff of 20 work from two computers.
The party costs him a hefty $3,000 per month to fund, a sum he takes from his own savings and supporters in the US, he said.
Sum Sitha, who helped settle Cambodian refugees in the US, is not a stranger to Cambodian politics.
He joined Funcinpec in 1983 before defecting to the Khmer Nation Party in the 1990s. He later broke with opposition leader Sam Rainsy to join the Khmer Citizens’ Party in 1998 ahead of the national elections that year.
That party was headed by former Funcinpec Deputy National Police Commissioner Nguon Soeur, and although Sum Sitha cannot recall exactly how the KCP did in the 1998 national election, he claims the he notched 10,000 votes running for a lawmaker’s position in Phnom Penh.
His latest political endeavor, however, has been greeted with skepticism by some observers.
“The investment is risky and a waste of time and money,” warned Suth Dina, president of the fringe, ultra-nationalist Khmer Front Party.
“The better chance he could take to make some change is if he seeks any existing party to join with and help strengthen it,” he advised.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay questioned whether the party really had as many supporters as it claimed.
“[Sum Sitha] said he has one million members…and this party has just come from nowhere,” Son Chhay said.
He added that similar parties have cropped up in previous years, and have not appeared entirely sincere in their mandates.
“We learn from the past from some campaigns that they’re not talking about their own party, but they’re talking about how good the ruling party is,” he said.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the ruling CPP is not behind Sum Sitha’s activities.
“We have no link to this party,” he said. “The CPP has four million supporters…. We would not sponsor any party.”
He added that individuals are free to establish parties, but questioned whether the Khmer National Party would really be able to play the role of the opposition.
“Usually, a legitimate opposition must be those with seats in parliament,” he said.
Despite the criticism, Sum Sitha said he is keeping his sights high, with a view to winning National Assembly seats at the 2008 election.
“I hope we can get one third of the National Assembly seats in the next term,” he said.
“I feel absolutely confident that we will get the seats because small parties in the past were not well organized. We are well organized.”