Kry Lay lined up in early June to vote for the party he wanted to run Kampong Cham province’s Srak commune in the eastern part of the country. A former Sam Rainsy Party commune, the locale’s electorate delivered what Lay, a local farmer, wanted – a Cambodia National Rescue Party-controlled commune council he could “trust”.
But on October 28, Commune Councillor Ul Pov heeded a call put out by Prime Minister Hun Sen asking opposition elected officials to join the ruling Cambodian People’s Party before the potential, and maybe imminent, dissolution of the CNRP later this month. Lay was not happy with Pov’s “betrayal of the voter’s will”.
“We voted for them to serve us, but if they go serve another party for benefits we do not know what to do,” he said.
Since the premier made his offer in late October, around 60 CNRP officials, including one lawmaker, have jumped ship to the CPP, with each defection quickly broadcast and tallied by government mouthpiece Fresh News. CPP spokesman Sok Eysan claimed the defections had jumped to over a hundred as of yesterday.
In interviews yesterday, defectors all cited party President Kem Sokha’s “treason” charges – widely seen as politically motivated – as the reason for their shift in party allegiance, but they also acknowledged facing backlash from their constituents.
For his part, Pov said the treason charges against Sokha – which stem from a video in which he tells supporters he’d received political advice from the United States – must be true because the ruling party would not jail an innocent person.
“They are not cruel. They won’t arrest and put you in jail unless you are wrong,” he said. “So I made my own decision to join the CPP and we can still serve the people as usual.”
Pov claimed villagers in the commune had not reacted to his defection but Lay, CNRP Commune Chief Sreng Sokhoeun and fellow opposition Councillor Sem Kosal disagreed, saying they and other locals were now distrustful of the newly inducted CPP member.
“Before we were friends, but now he is my competitor,” said Kosal. “I am not happy with Pov.”
In Takeo province, defector Chen Choy, 65, the first deputy commune chief for Champei, is hesitant to speak about the ill will he has generated in the area, but admits that people had expressed disappointment at his decision, stopped talking to him and even turned their backs on him.
“But it is fine for me. I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” he said, before parroting the same Sokha treason narrative peddled by the government over the past two months.
A few provinces north, in Kampong Thom’s Damrei Choankhla commune, it’s a similar situation. Here the CNRP has taken a bigger blow – the commune chief, deputy chief and a councillor have moved to the CPP.
Chheng Chantha, the first deputy for the commune, said around half the people he met since his October 26 defection were ambivalent to his party switch, but the other half have doled out more than their share of criticism for what they consider his decision to sell out.
“After I joined the CPP, the villagers and other people criticised me. They criticised, [saying] why did I sell myself,” he said.
To make matters worse, Chantha’s defection letter was one of the few featured on local television the day of his defection, fetching him more adversaries.
“Even people from outside the community now question me and others stay away from me,” he added.
Sun Chanthy, head of the CNRP’s executive committee in Kampong Thom, said there was no need to discriminate against defecting members, but the party’s doors were now closed to them.
“Those people will be eliminated from the party list in the future,” he said, sounding an optimistic note.
“And when the party is not dissolved they will all be jobless.”