Upon Return, Can Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha Co-Exist?

The union between Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) vice president Kem Sokha and soon-to-return president Sam Rainsy is immortalized in their election posters: two smiling men with their clasped hands thrust in the air.

Their message is one of unity. But their ability to co-exist beyond the July 28 election re­mains to be seen, analysts say.

–News Analysis

After all, Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha have a history of baiting each other, particularly in political speeches that the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Re­action Unit was only too happy to disseminate earlier this year as the SRP and Human Rights Party merged to jointly contest the election against long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen and his long-ruling CPP.

Whether the two former adversaries can keep their strategic marriage together, particularly in the face of the wily Mr. Hun Sen, remains to be seen and will have far-reaching consequences for the country’s future political landscape.

“Before they joined together to be the CNRP they went through years of dialogue and negotiations assessing the pros and cons [of a merge] and they missed a couple of elections because they did not get along,” said independent political analyst Chea Vannath.

“So now that they got back together, I feel that any other differences they already overcame them. I think that they have become more mature and I think that now is the common goal and common purpose. It’s not just personal gain or benefit.”

Stabilizing the relationship is a committee comprised of former members from both parties, which is designed to mediate their leaders’ personal differences “for the survival of the party,” Ms. Vannath said.

Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said it would be “foolish” for Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha to allow any differences of opinion to fracture the structure of the CNRP. But it is not beyond the realm of reason that an offer to come into the government fold could be extended by the prime minister as a means of dividing the two opposition leaders.

“I think with regard to a Hun Sen offer, the idea has been floated that Sam Rainsy might be co-opted into the ruling party to be part of the next government,” Mr. Mong Hay said.

“I think firstly that this is a ploy and within a strategy to split and show mutual mistrust among the leadership of the opposition party. I think they’ve been using that kind of strategy all along, [as with the release of the audio files] to show there is still mutual doubt and suspicions to split up. I think perhaps for the good of the party, I think the leadership of the opposition should resist that.”

Asked to comment on such a scenario, Ms. Vannath said: “It’s a very slim possibility.”

“Sam Rainsy might see himself as the future leader by himself, from his own merit, rather than joining and working under Hun Sen,” Ms. Vannath said.

“If Sam Rainsy is co-opted by Hun Sen, either it creates a lot of tension between the ruling party, or a breakaway of Sam Rainsy from the ruling party,” she added, using the analogy that oil and water do not mix. “And maybe Hun Sen is the present and Sam Rainsy sees himself as the future.”

Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), said the men need to work on their relationship, but there is now less importance placed on leadership as the CNRP has generated its own, street-level momentum.

“They have no choice because even if they have different behaviors and views, they have to make it work,” he said. “There is public pressure on them, but the CNRP doesn’t rely on leadership like before. It is more grassroots now.”

One of those grassroot voices, 29-year-old street vendor Taing Lim, said Tuesday the CNRP’s very popularity was based on the fact it was a merger, and not one of the leaders alone.

“This party got a lot of support after the merger, so it’s important for them to strengthen their unity into one.”

Conjuring up the image of a cockfight, CPP spokesman Cheam Yeap predicted the ultimate demise of the CNRP upon Mr. Rainsy’s return.

“Both Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha want to be a master to lead,” Mr. Yeap said. “They have both experiences of mistrust because they have not been 100 percent loyal to each other.

“When Sam Rainsy was a convict, Mr. Sokha saw the potential from merging the party because Mr. Rainsy couldn’t come back to Cambodia. So then, Mr. Sokha thought he was a strong and vital fighting cock.”

Now there can only be one winner between the two fighting cocks, Mr. Yeap explained.

Neither Mr. Sokha nor Mr. Rainsy could be reached for comment, but CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann insisted that the smiling, united front portrayed in their campaign posters is genuine.

“The unity of Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha is the life and death issue of the country,” he said. “We are politicians; we have to respect the will of the people and we have to put the national interest above everything.”

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