PHNOM PENH: Stepping into the crosshairs of your own party is always a brave move in politics.
It is especially so when your party is an opposition built on fragile foundations in a toxic political environment, where a small bungled strategy could undermine any chance of electoral success.
But Kem Monovithya has had enough – of the hateful language, the smear campaigns and the constant undermining that have shadowed Cambodian political affairs for years.
More pointedly, she says, these symptoms have seeped into the corridors of her party’s coalition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in which she is a rising figure.
The 35-year-old is the party’s deputy director-general of public affairs and the daughter of Kem Sokha, one of the country’s most popular politicians, currently living in the party’s Phnom Penh headquarters to avoid arrest.
Yet in a sign of influence and confidence belying her official duties, she has been a central antagonist in recent weeks. She took to Twitter to criticise her own party leader Sam Rainsy for his prolonged exile in France, taking aim at what she labelled his “wild theories”, “lies” and “moodiness”.
The public nature of the spat was unprecedented and set off a crescendo of insults thrown across the globe, amplified by social media.
Far from stepping back from the brink, Monovithya is set on emphasising her point. She told Channel NewsAsia that she has no fear about speaking out in the pursuit of more healthy national rhetoric.
“Stop talking about personal attacks, stop labelling, stop colouring people,” she said. “Just because someone is challenging you or just because someone has a different opinion to you doesn’t make them a traitor inside the party, it doesn’t make them a puppet of the ruling party or of another country.”
She drew comparisons with the ugly nature of aspects of American politics where “demagoguery” can overwhelm any serious policy discussions.
“Here, it’s always been like this. The opposition, and Cambodian politics in general, have been run on personality-based campaigns. The creation of a god-like figure for everyone to worship, for supporters to worship, and that needs to change,” she said.
Her detractors have labelled her outspoken views as a factional strategy aimed at destabilising 67-year-old Rainsy’s control of the party and assisting Kem Sokha’s ultimate leadership ambitions. But she denies that her criticism is a sign of disunity, rather an effort to change the conversation.
“If those opinions are not allowed to be expressed then it would be like a dictatorship all over again and that’s not how CNRP functions.
“We should talk more on issues, rather than creating personas. Young people are getting informed and they want more than just charisma.”
YOUTH OF A NATION
Monovithya believes that there is a deep generational gap within the CNRP that could be preventing progress within the party – and indeed the country. She fears the CNRP, like the government, taking voters for granted within the cyclical patterns that have defined the political landscape in Cambodia for decades.
“Yes, old people carry experiences with them but at the same time they also need to take into consideration the young people’s voice,” she said.
Now, she wants to shake up the status quo.
“If I don’t fear the regime, why would I fear just some old people in the opposition party trying to take me down?”
Among young people in Cambodia, particularly in urban areas, there have been signs of an appetite for a change in government, with the last general election showing significant opposition success in the bigger cities, which have a younger demographic. But the CNRP has largely failed to build on that momentum.
The opposition has been effectively crushed this term, mostly absent from parliament and unable to broadcast an alternative vision in the face of unrelenting pressure from the ruling party.
Still, the CNRP will need to grasp youth commitment and their subsequent vote at ballot boxes in the general election in 2018 if they are to be given a mandate and end Hun Sen’s three-decade rule.
“I want to modernise the party as an institution. We are no longer a mom and pop store. We are a big institution that represents about half of this country,” she said. “We cannot function as the opposition from several years ago, we cannot.”
She says part of that process is encouraging future leaders – a concept largely unseen in the top echelons of power in both the government and opposition; Hun Sen has ruled since 1985 while Rainsy likewise has led various alternative movements for decades.
“Actually being a leader is someone who is able to cultivate a new generation of leaders who are better and smarter than he is. If leaders take pride in being the only leader, the only ruler, actually they fail.
“Like it or not, young people are going to be in the position to change the country.”
Earning respect is Kem Monovithya's greatest challenge, she says.
‘PERSONAL AND SEXIST INSULTS’
Monovithya is not an elected official – for now. Her family connections give her an elevated platform but not necessarily respect. Part of that, she claims, is because she’s a woman operating amid an old-school boys club.
“It’s exceedingly difficult and I can say it’s more difficult than challenging the ruling party. We have a long way to go before people give any respect to women,” she said.
She believes that society is far more accepting of her gender and youth than the party has ever been. The culture is similarly as unhealthy for other women in decision-making positions, who are routinely “discouraged” or stereotyped, she said.
“You have to have a lot of courage and a lot of patience and a lot of perseverance because there are a lot of personal and sexist insults.”
However, her battle to make an impression or show substance beyond the shadow of her father is a more unique challenge.
“It’s a curse and it’s a blessing at the same time in the sense that, being in my family, I’m exposed to unique experiences that not anyone could have. It’s a curse in that I will also be discounted because I’m his daughter. It doesn’t matter what I bring to the table.”
Monovithya wants a widespread change of attitudes in order to promote national reconciliation and mark the end of such confrontational politics.
“It’s not fighting for the sake of fighting, it’s not resisting for the sake of resisting. We need to be inspired by possibility not by problems.”
She believes that the pressure to do just that will be driven by Cambodian people. Yet with little precedence of leaders truly listening to voters, it remains little but an optimistic theory.
Until then, the foundations of the opposition are far from stable. Its future –potentially as the government of the country – is equally as uncertain.