Compared to the ruling Cambodia People’s Party, the Sam Rainsy Party is small and the Human Rights Party smaller. While they are the second- and third-largest parties respectively, combined, the two opposition parties occupy less than a fourth of the National Assembly.
It is hard to imagine that it would be in the interests of the CPP to engineer an interruption of the workings of either. And yet, many believe it has done just that.
When Hun Sen claimed Monday that he had aided in building the HRP, it fanned the flames of a very well-stoked fire. His claim came just a week after the release of recorded telephone conversations from 2007 in which he was heard giving instructions to Mr Sokha—a disclosure that, among other things, ruined merger plans with the SRP.
In the week since the conversation surfaced, the SRP has refused to adjust its attitude or extend discussion to Mr Sokha’s HRP. If anything, the SRP seems relieved to have its doubts apparently proven correct after months of increasingly acrimonious discussion between the two parties over a planned merger.
Meanwhile, the HRP appears to be spending much of its time on a public relations push countering the implications of the conversation and insisting it is an innocent victim.
What has become increasingly clear in the past week is that if the leaked recording was a ploy to incite chaos among the ranks of opposition parties, as some analysts claim, it has proven remarkably effective.
Yim Sovann, spokesman for the SRP, said the conversation was evidence of the HRP’s alliance with the CPP. “It is clear to us they receive advice from the top leader of the CPP. They talk about money, they talk about how to disturb the SRP.”
Mr Sovann called the situation a repeat of 2004, in which the SRP and Funcinpec found themselves on the verge of a merger that might have created a party to rival the ruling party. In the end, however, Funcinpec allied with the CPP and formed a coalition government.
“All this makes us think we have to strengthen our party. Funcinpec and the HRP weren’t created by the CPP but they serve the CPP,” he said.
The HRP, for its part, seems equally critical of the SRP.
“What Sam Rainsy accused us of being puppets, it’s only because he doesn’t want unification. He thinks they are strong enough,” said HRP spokesman, Pol Ham. Mr Ham said the SRP’s inability to look past these “tricks” meant the two had, in effect, aligned.
“Now who is the real puppet? The SRP and CPP join hands.”
Mr Ham said the precursor to the HRP, the mid-nineties Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, dissolved due to infighting provoked by the CPP. He said this latest disclosure was just one more in a long line.
“Hun Sen is tricky: he tried to first destroy the BLDP by supporting one side, then Funcinpec, then the SRP, now the HRP as well.”
It would hardly be the first time the CPP has been accused of fomenting rifts within and between opposition parties. Spokesmen for both parties say there is a storied record of interference which has affected in one way or another many of the key players involved in politics today.
A tactic of divide-and-conquer has proved remarkably successful in the past. According to Mr Sovann of the SRP, in the 1990s, Funcinpec, the BLDP, and the Khmer Nation Party, the SRP’s forerunner, each faced CPP-interference that greatly weakened the parties in the run-up to the 1998 elections.
Similar tactics appeared in the wake of the 2003 elections, when nearly a year of deadlock left the country without a government. Eleven months after the election, the CPP managed to undermine the Funcinpec-SRP Alliance of Democrats union (aimed at pushing out the prime minister) by pulling the former into a coalition government. Less than two years later, the premier was publicly deriding Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s party, slamming senior officials for incompetence and nepotism.
In September 2006, Prince Ranariddh was forced out of Funcinpec. The fracturing of the party hit hard and fast. By the time the 2008 National Assembly elections rolled around, Funcinpec was a shell of its former self–garnering just two of 123 seats. In the previous election, the party had won more than a fifth of the seats. Prince Ranariddh’s new party, the Norodom Ranariddh Party, also won just two seats.
“I think the CPP continues to show its capacity to outthink and outplay its rivals,” said historian Milton Osborne. Mr Osborne noted that there was no way to be sure if this leaking of recordings fell into the domain of CPP-brokered interference but that it would fit in with past moves by the CPP.
“Given the nature of Cambodian politics, and not least the part money plays in them, I would not dismiss the possibility that [what] has happened is all carefully orchestrated.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said the ease with which the HRP and SRP fell into fractiousness after the recording was leaked was bound to benefit no one but the CPP.
“Whatever the facts, at the end of the day this will create greater enmity between HRP and SRP in the lead-up to the elections–which is unfortunate because it may well mean they spend less time criticizing the CPP and the government’s woeful human rights record, rampant land grabbing, and muzzling of government critics with trumped up criminal charges,” said Mr Robertson.
“Diverting attention from government abuses and having the opposition parties fight among themselves is, I suspect, precisely the point of this whole exercise.”
Others are less sure. Historian Ros Chantrabot, an academician at the government-affiliated Royal Academy of Cambodia, said he suspected the SRP would benefit more than anyone from the fallout.
“With regards to the leaking of phone recordings, SRP gets more benefits than other parties because the SRP and HRP were in communication with each other. The HRP aimed to join together, but the SRP was trying not to.”
Mr Chantrabot disputed claims that the CPP has any gains to be made.
“It does not provide any benefit to the CPP because the CPP has a clear and strong foundation.”
His analysis was echoed by CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun, chairman of National Assembly’s commission on foreign affairs, who explained that the CPP had nothing to gain from the demise of the HRP.
“What kind of interest would the CPP have in breaking them? It wastes money, we would use that money to help people build wells, schools or infrastructure.”
Funcinpec’s Great Leader Keo Puth Rasmey said such leaks were a commonplace political gambit, though he hesitated to suggest who might be behind such a move.
“It is nothing new for Cambodian political society,” said Mr Puth Rasmey. “In this issue, we have many different elements and it is difficult to determine the actual evidence.”
Though few will likely ever know for sure whether it was in the CPP’s interest to make, or break, the HRP, what is clear is that there will be a lengthy, mud-slinging run-up to the next elections. Koul Panha, executive director for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections Cambodia, said he had faith in the public to look past fracas make decisions based on the parties’ platforms.
But, he cautioned, opposition parties shared a portion of the responsibility for being overly fearful of political tactics and thus unwilling to take risks that would reap major electoral rewards.
“Opposition parties are always afraid amongst themselves, they’re afraid about infiltration and the result is that they mistrust one another.”
“They should learn how to manage that kind of environment because there will always be more ways to discredit the opposition and each other.”