Despite the dissolution of the CNRP, many of its former commune councillors and chiefs who had their positions revoked are hopeful the party will return to the political arena. In the meantime, Khmer Times finds out what is keeping them occupied as the political climate shifts.
Som Sovanna may look like a common person who sells vegetables every morning, but the 59-year-old from Pursat city is a politician lying dormant, waiting for the return of her party.
Ms Sovanna is one of 5,000 former CNRP commune councillors left out of a job after the party was dissolved by the Supreme Court. Prior to the decision, Ms Sovanna served as second commune chief of Rolork Sar. Now she wakes up before the roosters to sell her vegetables.
“After the party was dissolved and I was removed from my commune position, I began selling vegetables in the commune,” Ms Sovanna says. “I wanted to take a rest from politics because I only liked the CNRP.”
“We fought until we were finally victorious – but it was all in vain. I do not have a place in any other political parties,” she adds. “If the CNRP is not reinstated, I won’t be returning to politics; I will just rest at home like a normal person.”
Having been a member of the Sam Rainsy Party since 2003, Ms Sovanna was elected to lead her commune as a CNRP deputy chief in 2017.
That year, the CPP won 1,156 communes, while the CNRP took 489 at the polls. The only other party that managed to secure a seat was the Khmer National United Party, which won one seat.
However, victory was short-lived as the CNRP was dissolved and its leadership fractured.
Ms Sovanna says that she was then encouraged to join the ruling CPP in order to retain her position as second commune chief, but she refused to turn her back on her peers and chose to live a simple life instead.
“I wanted to have a comfortable life just like other people, but why won’t I join other parties? Well, I didn’t want to betray the will of the people who voted for me,” she says. “Now I just want to become a normal person and I do not want a position in these circumstances.”
“They [the CPP] said if I didn’t join them then they will make sure to give me a hard time when I’m processing documents,” she adds.
The CNRP’s leader Kem Sokha was jailed in 2017 and soon after, the highest court in the land dissolved the CNRP. Under the threat of sanctions and revocation of the Everything-but-arms treaty, Cambodia has been under international pressure to restore political space and drop the charges against Mr Sokha.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court has since granted Mr Sokha bail, but it also confined him to a four-block radius around his home in Phnom Penh. One of his bail conditions include being monitored by the authorities and being prohibited from contacting his peers.
Mr Sokha’s confinement ensured that what was left of the former opposition party had no leadership.
This prompted some supporters to name Sam Rainsy as acting party president, a move condemned by the CPP and pro-Sokha supporters alike.
As for Ms Sovanna, she says she can never choose between the two leaders. To her, both Mr Rainsy and Mr Sokha embody the ideals the former opposition party stood for.
“Both guys are the same – they are a lot like each other,” she says. “I don’t think I can choose between the two.”
“If our left foot [Mr Sokha] works with our right foot [Mr Rainsy] then we can move forward together,” Ms Sovanna says.
Ms Sovanna is not the only former CNRP commune councillor in this predicament.
Sea Seng Sokhon sits in his home in Kampong Cham province’s Sambour Meas commune. For the 62-year-old, the dissolution of the CNRP did not deter him from grasping hope that someday it will return.
“My stance is still the same as long as there is the Cambodia National Rescue Movement,” Mr Seng Sokhon says. “I still have hope, but for now I am a farmer.”
“I will not join any other political party because people trusted the CNRP,” he adds. “So even after the party was dissolved, my heart is still with it.”
In 2003, he served as second commune chief as a member of the Sam Rainsy Party and in 2017, he was elected as chief as a member of the CNRP.
“I only worked as commune chief for four months and 16 days,” Mr Seng Sokhon says. “I had hoped to build and fix roads and fences as a commune official, but that never happened.”
“I loved my people – they voted to support the CNRP,” he adds.
Yim Phally, a former CNRP commune chief from Siem Reap’s Kok Chak commune, says she now deals in furniture to help support her family.
She also served as commune chief for about four months in 2017. She began her political career with Sam Rainsy in 1996.
“Since they dissolved my party, I have only taken rest from politics,” Ms Phally says. “But even if I’m only watching TV at home, I’m always following up on recent political developments to anticipate what happens next.”
“I am not interested in any other parties because I will respect the will of the people who voted for me as commune chief,” she adds. “I still love politics because I was a woman who was making decisions on behalf of her country. I especially loved helping villagers in need.”
As for Khom Sokha, former Prek Eng commune chief in Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov district, participating in politics was exhausting.
“I try to work as much as I can, but I might retire from politics because of all this suffering,” Mr Sokha says, noting that all former opposition commune councillors who refused the CPP’s offer had their positions revoked.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan has said that more than 600 former opposition commune councillors and chiefs defected to the CPP.
Sok Kimseng, a former CNRP official from Siem Reap, says the government must restore democracy in the Kingdom.
“I still stand with the CNRP,” Mr Kimseng says. “We are hopeful that the CNRP will make a political comeback in Cambodia.”
He noted that out of about 500 CNRP members who were offered a CPP position, only about 20 accepted.
“People defected to the CPP because of personal reasons,” he says. “Safety also seemed like a grave concern.”