PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodian TV news anchor Soy Sopheap has again stepped into the role of political peacemaker in an effort to end the feud between Prime Minister Hun Sen and exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy which threatens to ignite political conflict.
Hun Sen has warned Cambodia could descend into civil war if Sam Rainsy’s party wins an election in 2018, while Rainsy has called for vigilance to prevent self-styled strong man Hun Sen using the deteriorating political climate to postpone elections.
Soy Sopheap entered Cambodia’s turbulent political arena in 2013 to act as peacemaker between the two rivals which allowed Sam Rainsy to return from four years in exile in France. The deal included a royal pardon for a prison sentence Rainsy received in absentia.
“In politics, there must be talks for resolution so that no one will lose face,” Sopheap told Reuters in an interview announcing he would again seek to be Cambodia’s political peacemaker.
The wealthy 44-year Soy Sopheap is an anchor at Boyon TV, which is run by Hun Sen’s daughter Hun Mana. He publishes the newspaper Deum Ampil, and is viewed as a messenger for Hun Sen.
He also has the ear of the exiled Sam Rainsy.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, is concerned about the breakdown in political dialogue and incidents of violence and intimidation.
Two members of Sam Rainsy’s Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) were badly beaten outside parliament in October. A few days later, CNRP vice president Kem Sokha was removed from his post as deputy president of parliament in a vote that the CNRP boycotted.
“Any intensification of current events could bring Cambodia to a dangerous tipping point,” Smith said in a statement.
Robust economic growth and peace after decades of civil war, including under Pol Pot’s 1975-79 “killing fields” regime, have ensured Hun Sen’s continued re-election. But Hun Sen has been on the defensive since a disputed 2013 election when he was stunned by the CNRP’s success and increasing support among urban youth.
Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won in 2013, but the CNRP accused his party of vote rigging and boycotted parliament for a year. A political truce in 2014 ended the boycott, but that deal collapsed in July and relations between Hun Sen and Rainsy have deteriorated.
Sam Rainsy is again in self-imposed exile after an arrest warrant was issued for him on Nov. 12 over an old defamation case for which he had already received a royal pardon.
Cambodian authorities have since charged him with forgery and incitement over a Facebook posting about a border treaty with Vietnam. The charges carry a 12-year prison sentence.
The Facebook posting was seen as criticizing Hun Sen, who the CNRP often portrays as Hanoi’s stooge.
Sopheap gave few details of how he would convince Cambodia’s two main political rivals to bury their differences, but said he had contacted Sam Rainsy, advising him not to return yet.
“Sam Rainsy may have to apologize for the sake of the party and the country, there is nothing wrong with that. What is to lose and win in saying sorry?” Sopheap said.
But Hun Sen’s party shows little appetite for a deal, demanding Sam Rainsy serve his jail sentence.
“It is too late for an apology,” said CPP spokesman Sok Eysan. “Sam Rainsy has started the fire so he’s now taking the smoke.”
Editing by Simon Webb and Michael Perry