Beehive party founder Sonando set to rejoin politics after blessing from Hun Sen

Mam Sonando greets opposition supporters at a post-election rally at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park in 2013.
Mam Sonando greets opposition supporters at a post-election rally at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park in 2013. Charlotte Pert

Veteran political figure Mam Sonando has signalled he will once again take the reins of his Beehive Social Democratic Party just months out from Cambodia’s national elections, in a move critics say undermines democracy and plays into a skewed ruling- party narrative of a multiparty system.

The move followed a Friday speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen – in which he affectionately referred to Sonando as “Grandfather Do” – encouraging the 76-year-old to re-enter the political fray. Just over two months ago, Sonando had said from overseas that he feared falling victim to a politicised arrest – his fourth – over the same purported “treason” case that saw opposition Kem Sokha jailed last year amid ongoing political tensions.

Saying he was now back in Phnom Penh, Sonando yesterday vowed to reclaim the Beehive presidency at the party’s upcoming extraordinary congress on Sunday. He had resigned as president in August last year after Beehive’s poor performance at the commune elections in June.

But yesterday he said the forced dissolution of the ruling party’s only viable rival, Sokha’s Cambodia National Rescue Party, significantly buoyed his electoral chances.

“If the CNRP had not been dissolved, I would not come back.When I participated in the commune election, I have seen that people did not support me . . . and, in contrast, they support the CNRP,” he said, saying he had seen no point in continuing and removed himself from the picture so as not to “disrupt” the CNRP.

“But now, unfortunately, the CNRP had been dissolved, therefore I think it is a key opportunity, and that I need to resume my political party to represent or raise the CNRP flag, or represent the democratic people.”

Despite the widely condemned dissolution of the CNRP, the redistribution of its 55 seats in parliament to tiny political parties and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s sweep of every single elected Senate seat just last month, Hun Sen on Friday urged Sonando to marshal his party and take part in what he characterised as a new era of political pluralism.

“There are so many political parties, and now I have heard of the creation of the Kem Ley Party, and I’m hearing that grandfather Mam Sonando is strengthening his force strongly,” the premier said. “Grandfather Do, you are old, but if you can do it, you can do . . . There is going to be a mushrooming of political parties.”

Observers have repeatedly suggested the ruling party’s calls for participation from minor parties are little more than a fig leaf for effective one-party control, and just last week ruling party spokesman Sok Eysan touted the notion of one-party rule in places like China.

On Friday, Hun Sen went on to say the implementation of the law against “wrongdoers” and certain political organisations that have “broken the law” did not destroy democracy, but rather “rescued democracy and guaranteed that there are no people dying because of this extremist, anarchist group”.

Sonando regularly appeared at opposition-led protests after the disputed 2013 elections, and voiced his support for the demonstrations that followed.

Former CNRP deputy Mu Sochua condemned Sonando’s move, saying that “to join a fake election” was to “be part of destroying democracy”.

Sonando rejected that characterisation, however.

“But now the CNRP is no longer present – it is dissolved and dead – therefore let the people decide whether they opt to continue to hold the coffin or think about the future to save the nation. It is up to the people,” he said, adding later: “The one who betrayed democracy is the CNRP.”

He also said yesterday that he would agree to testify in the case against Sokha if he were called, after being previously summoned for questioning while he was abroad in France. The summons had prompted Sonando to speculate at the time he was being set up for arrest.

Sonando’s encouragement from Hun Sen marks a sudden shift in a long and acrimonious relationship. He was jailed in 2003 and 2005 for critical comments aired on his radio program.

Just over five years ago, in 2012, Hun Sen accused Sonando of “incitement” and fomenting a secessionist plot – national security charges with similar severity to those currently levelled at Kem Sokha.

Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in prison over the case despite a lack of credible evidence, prompting international outcry. The conviction was never overturned, but his sentence was later reduced and suspended, except for eight months of time served.

This could potentially put Sonando and his party in a precarious position thanks to rushed amendments to the Law on Political Parties last year, which forbid those convicted of crimes from leading political parties.

The law, however, states it applies only to individuals “convicted to a prison term for a felony or a misdemeanour without having his/her sentence suspended except in case where the sentence was pardoned by the King”.

While a portion of Sonando’s sentence was suspended, he was never pardoned by the King, and even Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said yesterday that he had “no idea” whether Sonando would be eligible for the Beehive presidency given his past convictions. “Let me think about this, I will ask the department of political parties,” Sopheak said.

Meanwhile, several members of the CNRP – including then-President Sam Rainsy – were forced to resign from the party over past criminal convictions when the amendments were first passed.

Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said “selective enforcement of the law is a daily occurrence in Cambodia”.

“What is essential here is to keep in mind that the law on political parties in itself contravenes international human rights law, by unduly restricting individuals from participating in the political life and expressing their political opinion,” she said in an email. “The possibility of having [a] free and fair election is a mere illusion”.