Following a month in which Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly sang the praises of opposition leader Sam Rainsy only weeks after threatening to unleash the military on Mr. Rainsy’s deputy, Kem Sokha, the opposition party was back on the road this week promoting an image of unity.
Mr. Sokha was conspicuously absent from the Angkor Sankranta festival in Siem Reap City last week as the apparently budding friendship between Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Rainsy was put on display for large crowds and television cameras.
But this week, the two opposition leaders reunited for a whirlwind tour of the country, traveling to the capitals of Kompong Chhnang, Pursat, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces to host public forums on Monday and Tuesday.
Mr. Sokha sought to quell any notion of friction between the two men by recalling the time before his Human Rights Party merged with the Sam Rainsy Party in 2012.
“Ask why crowds of people came to strongly support the CNRP in 2012, in 2013,” Mr. Sokha told opposition supporters at a public event in Banteay Meanchey province’s Serei Saophoan City on Tuesday evening.
“It is because the CNRP was a merger of the SRP and HRP, and is a real democratic movement. It is because the leaders of the two parties gathered the forces of Cambodian compatriots,” he said. “That’s why people chose the CNRP.”
“People stood up and voted for the CNRP because of unity,” the deputy opposition leader continued. “People will continue to strongly support us only if we do not split.”
CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith said Wednesday that Mr. Sokha’s message was a reminder of the devastating effects that disunity has had on political parties opposing the CPP in the past.
“At present, we have three messages to be disseminated to people and activists,” said the lawmaker, a former member of Mr. Sokha’s HRP. “First, what brought us to be so strong now? Second, what made Funcinpec dissolve?
“And [third], what should we do after discovering these strength and weaknesses?” Mr. Ponhearith said.
Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia director Koul Panha said that Mr. Hun Sen’s differing treatment of Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha could be an early test of whether the opposition party will hold together until the 2018 election.
“After the 2013 election, the only two political parties that are on the landscape in Cambodian politics are the CPP and CNRP, and any party that does not remain consolidated will suffer,” Mr. Panha said. “It would be like before 2013.”
“The opposition has always had groups that are very critical of the CPP and the government, and the CPP are trying to send them a message that maybe they cannot trust their leaders if they get close to [Mr. Hun Sen],” he said.
“The leadership of the opposition knows this, but the question is the ground level and whether they understand.”
The desire of the CPP to drive a wedge between the opposition party’s leaders was made apparent after a CNRP rally on Monday, when CPP spokesman Chhim Phal Virun slammed Mr. Sokha’s remark that the CPP is a “communist” party.
“Right now is the end of his political life in opposing what the CPP is doing, especially the culture of dialogue between Samdech Prime Minister and [CNRP] President Sam Rainsy,” Mr. Phal Virun said.
Yet Mr. Rainsy said Wednesday that any notions of a growing divide between himself and Mr. Sokha have been laid to rest.
“The tension has diffused, with the threats of court proceedings that could be taken on Kem Sokha over,” Mr. Rainsy said. “There is no pressure on Kem Sokha on the one hand, and no special treatment of me on the other hand.”
Mr. Rainsy acknowledged that the CPP’s strategy before the next election would likely be to split him from Mr. Sokha, but said such a focus would be misplaced.
“We are competitors, and in order to win against a competitor you have to find out their possible weak points and to try to exploit any weak points, but the problems you find can sometimes be exaggerated,” Mr. Rainsy said.