actional divisions within the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, came to the surface in December, when a party conference in Atlanta named exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy its acting president. The conference was boycotted and its outcome rejected by supporters of Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s erstwhile president who remains under house arrest in Cambodia pending trial on charges of treason. In an email interview with WPR, Astrid Norén-Nilsson, associate senior lecturer at the Center for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University, Sweden, discusses the origins of the CNRP leadership dispute, and the implications of the opposition’s internal divisions for Cambodian politics.

 Hun Sen’s government has shown some willingness to relax its repressive stance toward the opposition, due to the European Union’s threatened suspension of preferential trade access under the Everything But Arms scheme. 

In mid-December, it was announced that 118 CNRP officials who had been banned from political activity until 2023 were allowed to re-enter politics, though not under the banner of the CNRP, upon making a request to either Hun Sen or Interior Minister Sar Kheng. The gesture by the Cambodian government comes in response to pressure by the international community. But it also reflects how the internal split has rendered the opposition less threatening. Simultaneously, it exacerbates the opposition’s divisions: Rainsy has urged his supporters not to re-enter politics under another party banner, while Sokha’s supporters appear more inclined to take up the offer. Unless and until Rainsy or Sokha change their stance, oppositional activity, even if it is under party banners other than the CNRP’s, may in time create a more competitive political landscape.
Meanwhile, there are definite limits to what the government will concede. Hun Sen is now threatening to retaliate against the opposition, doing away with it altogether, if EU trade preferences are withdrawn. 

In September, the European Parliament passed a 13-point resolution on Cambodia, including some points that appear realistic, but others that do not. There remains a possibility that, following an eventual conviction, Kem Sokha could be freed using a royal pardon. The government could possibly allow Rainsy or Sokha to engage in politics through an opposition party other than the CNRP. But a legal reinstatement of the CNRP appears politically impossible. Taken together, such measures would not restore genuinely competitive politics, but they would nonetheless be meaningful in reinserting a competitive element into the system. The international community should engage all available formal and informal channels to maintain and advance dialogue with the Cambodian government. This dialogue is more likely to yield results if it is guided by realistic expectations.