Cheam Channy’s imprisonment is only the latest of a string of recent obstacles for the embattled Sam Rainsy Party, but there is no consensus on its potential long-term effects for the opposition or the balance of power in Cambodia.
“It depends on the reaction of the public to the verdict and the ability of the Sam Rainsy Party to capitalize on the public reaction,” said Lao Mong Hay, legal advisor to the Center for Social Development. “Sometimes a bad thing can be turned into a good thing.”
Monh Saphan, Funcinpec parliamentarian and chairman of the National Assembly’s Defense, Interior and Inspection Commission, painted a morbid picture of the opposition’s future without Sam Rainsy.
“It’s like when the hen is away, leaving the chicks behind with no one to take care of them,” he said.
In addition to the jailing of Cheam Channy and the opposition’s loss of its leader and another parliamentarian to self-imposed exile abroad to avoid prosecution, parliamentarian Khem Veasna has also been exiled from the party.
“The reason that Sam Rainsy gained in the last election is that they grabbed Funcinpec votes, but the people have grown fed up with the opposition,” Monh Saphan said. “For example, people see that the Sam Rainsy Party is not a democratic party, because they fire their own lawmakers, like Khem Veasna.”
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay maintained that his party is only made stronger by the legal attacks.
“In a country like Cambodia, the oppression and intimidation of the opposition only makes the opposition more popular,” he said. “Since we are boycotting the [Assembly] meetings, we have more time to dedicate to the grassroots….We have to work closely with the rural population to provide them more information on our party and what is happening in our country.”
CPP parliamentarian Cheam Yeap defended the legal actions against SRP officials.
“Some people call the stripping of Sam Rainsy’s parliamentary immunity ‘taking him hostage,’ but that judgment is not fair,” he said. “It’s like when you catch the head of a snake, you have to hold its head tight or it will bite you.”
Chea Vannath, director of the Center for Social Development, compared the CPP’s use of the legal system to violence.
“When they use violence it looks very immature…. It looks legal to use the court rather than violence, but it’s worse than using violence.”
Lao Mong Hay said the CPP is effectively using a “divide and rule” strategy by pitting one party against another and using both intimidation and the courts to thwart opposition. However, he questioned whether the CPP would be able to transition to another generation of leaders.
“The current leadership is old,” he said. “The next generation will have to earn credibility and popular support.”
Long-term predictions aside, the CPP is firmly in power now. Funcinpec, however, is in an unclear position.
“It has been suffering for a long time from a lack of principled leadership and they have been scrambling for power,” Lao Mong Hay said. “I think that its leader should have stepped down after two conservative defeats.”
Chea Vannath noted that Funcinpec still holds most of the top public service positions in areas such as health, education and rural development, so they have a great potential to help the poor.
While gaining grassroots support is critical to the opposition’s growth, Chea Vannath said she worried that the party is neglecting Phnom Penh politics.
“They have less and less opportunity to gain experience working in the government,” Chea Vannath said. “If they have an unpredictable landslide [election] victory, it will be hard for them to lead the country.”
Son Chhay said that it is now a two-party contest.
“I think Funcinpec is out of the race now,” he said. “Our main competitor is the CPP.”
The jailing of “Cheam Channy was not a special case,” he added. “We will continue to do what we are doing.”