The former president of Cambodia’s main opposition party, Sam Rainsy, has declared himself leader of the party despite its current leader, Kem Sokha, being held under house arrest in Phnom Penh by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
The announcement was made at a gathering of overseas party members in Atlanta, GA, this week, which was billed as the first Cambodia National Rescue Party world conference outside the country and supporters of Sokha had opposed.
“This is the action that the situation has required us to do,” Rainsy said in an interview with VOA Khmer. “We have to make sure that the CNRP is restored because the dictatorship regime wants us to remain stagnant and has no leadership by prosecuting me and imprisoning [CNRP President] Kem Sokha.”
The CNRP won more than 40 percent of the national vote in local elections in 2017. But the ruling Cambodian People’s Party targeted Sokha and the CNRP over what it said was evidence that the opposition had engaged in a conspiracy to overthrow the government, though it has yet to provide evidence to support the claim. Sokha was arrested in September last year on treason charges.
Since the party’s dissolution, dozens of CNRP officials have left the country, fearing arrest.
Some 400 party supporters and officials living in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia, attended the conference in Atlanta.
“Since the CNRP was banned in Cambodia, it has also been quiet overseas because we don’t have a clear leadership,” said Ung Rithy, president of the CNRP U.S. branch. “Our task force cannot work together. We have a split within the party, but we have been trying to hide it, but now we’ve come together to show that we won’t be split anymore.”
“Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha are like one person,” said Sam Rainsy. “This is our spirit, our slogan, and our symbol. We will work together and unite as one.”
The CNRP now plans to lobby western government’s to apply pressure on Hun Sen to release Sokha.
In a statement, supporters of Sokha criticized Rainsy for making the unilateral move.
They said “a decision made by such a conference cannot force or require CNRP or its permanent committee to implement its order because attendees of this conference do not have legal rights to propose, nominate, or appoint an acting president.”