The Cambodian People’s Party made a clean sweep of the National Assembly election on July 29, 2018, winning all 125 seats in parliament. The election was fought, as observers later put it, in the absence of a legitimate opposition party despite there being 19 other parties on the ballot.
Weeks later, on August 23, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the formation of the Supreme Council for Consultation and Recommendation to house all the small parties. In an instant, Sok Sovann Vathana Sabung was catapulted to the rank of senior minister and his four-month-old political party legitimized as an opposition entity, despite being rejected by the Cambodian electorate.
Sok Sovann Vathana Sabung, who is better known for his social media presence as William Guang, created the Khmer Rise Party just 90 days before the general election and secured a total of 0.35 percent of all votes, with even invalid and spoiled ballots totaling more votes than his party received.
The move was seen by analysts as a ploy by the CPP government to install smaller and generally lesser-known parties into an official forum that has little to no power and is not accountable to the Cambodian people.
Vathana Sabung was mildly popular for Facebook live streams where he talked about topics like corruption, Vietnamese immigrants, injustice, and land disputes.
Earlier this month, VOA Khmer met Vathana Sabung in his palatial office, covered in faux gilded furniture, a large chandelier, and scarlet red carpeting. A window in the back provides some respite from the gold glow emanating from shiny carvings and trim.
The senior minister pushed back at suggestions that small parties were made to come onboard to legitimize the ruling party’s assertion that Cambodia remained a multi-party democracy, despite having a one-party parliament. All Senate seats are all occupied by the CPP.
“I do not even know Mr. Hun Sen in person,'' Vathana Sabung said. “Why would he have a business in helping me? The KRP’s political activities are solely financed by the party members.”
Unperturbed by accusations that the Supreme Council for Consultation and Recommendation was not an independent and legitimate consultative body, Vathana Sabung is uncompromising in his belief that he is part of a functioning democracy.
“The most appreciative thing is that we can implement democracy to its fullest,” Vathana Sabung said.
The consultative body was seemingly required to fill the massive void left by the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which at its peak occupied 44 percent of the National Assembly, 20 percent of the Senate and 30 percent of commune chief positions, and was led by experienced politicians who spoke articulately about public policy.
Following the CNRP’s dissolution by government court order in 2017, both houses of parliament and all commune chief positions were occupied only by Hun Sen’s CPP, barring one commune chief position in Banteay Meanchey province.
The decision to set up the government consultancy body potentially can be linked to Cambodia’s dramatic geopolitical swing towards China, which is now its chief patron and investor. It is not hard to see the similarities in the ad hoc Supreme Council in Cambodia and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) made up of the mainland China’s little-known political parties, academia and representatives of the private sector.
There is little doubt over the inefficacy of the Chinese version of this council, with state-owned Xinhua calling it “neither a body of state power nor a policymaking organ,” but at the same time asserting it enables “democratically participating in state affairs.”
“If the CPPCC is like [the Supreme Council for Consultation and Recommendation], then it is just another tool by the ruling parties to neutralize all opposition,” said Sophal Ear, an associate professor at the Occidental College in Los Angeles.
“Sad. But the reality is, this is a smokescreen for democracy, which was long-ago gutted.”
Another prominent member of the consultancy body is Kong Monika, who heads the Khmer Will Party. While himself new to politics, Kong Monika’s family is deeply tied to Cambodia's rough-and-tumble political chess board of the past 25 years.
His father, Kong Koam, is a veteran politician who defected from the CPP many years ago and then headed the Sam Rainsy Party. Kong Monika’s brother, Kong Bora, was a former CNRP lawmaker and in early 2019 defected to the CPP taking up a position in the Agriculture Ministry, according to local media reports.
This is in contrast to the third brother, Kong Saphea, who was brutally beaten in 2015 outside the National Assembly by a mob allegedly linked to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit.
Speaking at the Khmer Will Party headquarters, which previously housed Sam Rainsy’s nom de guerre party, Kong Monika viewed the new consultancy body as an incubator for fledgling political parties. He admitted, though, that he had to keep communicating with party supporters who were skeptical that he would turn into a “sycophant” of the ruling party.
He said his party joined the ostensibly named Supreme Council to gain experience to challenge the bigger parties.
“My party is just like a fresh graduate seeking job opportunities, where we will be asked if we had previous professional experiences to be recruited,” he said.
Kong Monika does seem cognizant of the reasons behind the creation of the council, admitting that the ruling party was looking to soften the glaring image of a one-party parliament, while allowing for minimal checks and balances on the executive.
But, he said that the existence of the consultancy body and the small parties’ participation was “better than nothing.”
The legitimizing of smaller parties was critical to keeping any other opposition movement in check, said Astrid Norén-Nilsson, who studies Cambodian politics at Lund University in Sweden.
“It introduced a new-old formula for consensual politics, to counteract the reemergence of contentious politics - however unlikely that was and still is,” Norén-Nilsson said.
The academic added that it was early to say whether this move was intended to permanently repackage the entire political opposition into an “auxiliary of the government.”
The prime minister’s decision to bring smaller parties into the government fold bears striking resemblance to the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, a political movement that came into being some 65 years ago after Norodom Sihanouk abdicated the throne to enter politics.
The Sangkum Reastr Niyum soon morphed into a political party, which also won complete control of the lower house in 1955. It was also known for coercing political opponents to join the movement, most notably, and briefly, Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan, who accepted a post to work within the system.
“It is possible that Hun Sen envisages for the CPP to, similarly, in time, take on the appearance of a mass movement that goes beyond party politics,” Norén-Nilsson added.
While the trappings of the government consultancy council were hard to resist for 15 of the 19 participating parties, the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) initially dabbled with the prospect of joining the council, before deciding to stay out. It now feels it has been sidelined in the national discourse.
The party, thought by many to be the natural successor to the CNRP, crossed only the 1 percent vote-share mark in the 2018 ballot, dispelling questions, for now, if opposition voters would see in it a viable alternative to Sam Rainsy’s and Kem Sokha’s party.
When the party’s leader Yeng Virak petitioned for parliamentary intervention to protect a natural lake from land-grabbing in the capital’s northwest, the GDP was asked to work through the Supreme Council for Consultation and Recommendation.
“This is a discrimination,” said Leok Sothea, assistant secretary-general for the GDP. He also found fault with the official consultancy body's lack of financial and political independence.
The consultancy body's operational budget is supervised by the Office of Council of Ministers’ cabinet, with a secretariat run by ruling party spokesman and CPP Central Committee member Chhim Phalvorun.
“It is the way the consultancy body works that makes it seem not independent and where you need to follow the political line drawn by the CPP-led government... a mechanism to defend what the government has done,” Leok Sothea said.
Even Prime Minister Hun Sen has at times questioned the need of the body that he decided to create for the “sake of national development.”
In June 2019, the prime minister told a cabinet meeting that he would no longer need the official consultancy body after 2023, complaining the council’s member parties had gone “beyond the line” to “interfere” in governmental affairs.
But he seemed to change his mind six months later while presiding over a conference hosted by the consultancy body. Hun Sen said then the council should exist beyond the 2023 general election, vouching for its independence and freedom to conduct its royally-decreed tasks.
Back at Vathana Sabung’s office near Olympic Market in the capital, he reminisced about how he was able to help get two deputy governors in Preah Sihanouk province fired for using excessive force during a March 2019 land dispute that turned violent.
The rookie party president said he believed that his participation in the council was helping create a new form of political thinking.
“The spirit of my political idea is to create a new model of politics, which is to oppose if you do things wrong. But how can I oppose, if you do things correctly?” he said, leaning back in a grandiose golden chair that matches the splendid wood carvings on the wall.