Money well-spent or a sign of desperation? The Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM), an organization created in January by exiled opposition politicians, this month retained American public relations firm BerlinRosen to manage a publicity campaign.

The paid services, aimed at intensifying international pressure on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recent political repression, will cost US$250,000 over the next six months, according to files released under the Foreign Agents Registration Act reviewed by Asia Times.

The CNRM was founded in America by several senior politicians from the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s largest and only viable opposition party until its court-ordered dissolution last November after being accused of trying to foment a “color revolution” to topple the government.

Sam Rainsy, CNRP’s president until he resigned in February 2017 to prevent the party from being dissolved due to his past politically-motivated criminal convictions, now heads the CNRM from exile. Kem Sokha, who was arrested in September on treason charges and now languishes in prison, headed the party at the time of its dissolution.

Supporters of Kem Sokha, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), stand outside the Appeal Court during a bail hearing for the jailed opposition leader in Phnom Penh, Cambodia September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
Supporters of Kem Sokha stand outside an Appeal Court during a bail hearing for the jailed opposition leader in Phnom Penh, September 26, 2017. Reuters/Samrang Pring

The CNRM has two overarching goals. Firstly, to agitate for the reinstatement of the CNRP before this July’s general election, which as it stands will be won virtually uncontested by Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Secondly, CNRM is appealing for Kem Sokha’s release from prison.

BerlinRosen will be tasked with putting across these messages to the international media. Among other contractual conditions, the firm must publish two op-eds “pitched to high-value international media,” while helping the CNRM to place two more op-eds in other publications.

BerlinRosen will also be required to engage in “proactive media pushes,” which includes writing regular press releases. One was published on March 9, which commented on recent clashes between villagers and authorities over a rubber plantation in Kratie province where military police opened fire on protestors.

The contract makes clear that BerlinRosen will not conduct “lobbying” and only act as a “publicity agent” and “political consultant” for the CNRM in the US. The semantic difference between a “lobbyist” and “political consultant” is blurry in Washington, but both often aim at similar objectives.

While the registered “principal” of the contract is Saumura Tioulong, Sam Rainsy’s wife and a former CNRP lawmaker, the contract’s “client” responsible for payment is an obscure Geneva-based organization known as Fondation Pluralisme.

Cambodia's Prime Minister and President of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), Hun Sen drops a ballot into a box during a Senate election in Takhmao, Kandal province, Cambodia February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
Cambodia’s Prime Minister drops a ballot into a box during a Senate election in Takhmao, Kandal province, Cambodia February 25, 2018. Reuters/Samrang Pring

Since its formation, the CNRM has struggled to gain traction both within Cambodia and abroad. In a recent interview with Asia Times, Sam Rainsy said the movement is still committed to the five objectives it laid out in January.

These include lobbying foreign governments, warning businesspeople about the dangers of doing business in Cambodia, and planning peaceful protests and other forms of “passive resistance” within Cambodia, including economic boycotts.

The other, arguably more ambitious, goals are appealing to Cambodia’s armed forces “not to use violence against the people” and trying to isolate Hun Sen within his own political party.

Most of these, at least initially, appear not to be working. There has not yet been one noticeable public demonstration against either the CNRP’s dissolution or Cambodia’s slide towards unchecked autocracy.

In February, Sam Rainsy and the CNRM urged Cambodians to boycott Vital Premium Water, a bottled-water company controlled by Hun Sen’s daughter, Hun Mana.

Eng Chhai Eang, a CNRP vice-president and CNRM founder, has referred to the drinking water company as “the spring drops of tears” while bidding to promote the boycott. Sam Rainsy called the proposed boycott the CNRM’s “first concrete initiative,” according to local media reports.

Supporters of President of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) attend a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Samrang Pring - RTX38NZ3
CNRP supporters attend a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

One month on, however, it isn’t apparent that Cambodian consumers have heeded the CNRM’s call. CNRM leaders barely raised the issue again after it was first proposed in mid-February, nor have they broached possible boycotts against other private companies tied to the government.

“Hostile Takeover,” a 2016 report by UK-based anti-corruption organization Global Witness, identified dozens of such firms, including some of Cambodia’s largest companies, of having ties to Hun Sen’s family.

Neither are there signs of open discord within the ruling CPP, though analysts have long suspected a factional split between Hun Sen and Interior Minister Sar Kheng.

In divide and rule fashion, Sam Rainsy told Asia Times that the CPP contains “many progressive elements who can be included in a vast national union to make Cambodia move forward on a healthy ground.”

Without any clear successes, the CNRM’s activities now appear scattershot. Earlier this month, Sam Rainsy floated the idea of meeting Hun Sen on the sidelines of the recently concluded Asean-Australia Summit. Hun Sen rejected the proposed meeting, saying that he doesn’t “negotiate with traitors.”

Protesters hold placards and banners during a demonstration against Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is attending the one-off summit of 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in Sydney, Australia March 16, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray
Protesters hold placards and banners during a demonstration against Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Australia-Asean summit in Sydney, March 16, 2018. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

It is likely that the CNRM leadership knows, though won’t say publicly, that it is having little impact inside Cambodia. This is not unsurprising considering it has been branded a “terrorist” organization by the government, making it illegal to join.

There are also suggestions the government is now trying to label any rights protestors as part of the CNRM, as another means of muzzling dissent. Land rights demonstrators from Svay Rieng province were reportedly interrogated by authorities this month on suspicion of being CNRM members, though they were simply trying to deliver a petition to officials in Phnom Penh.

“Beyond survival, I’m not sure anyone can say [the CNRM] has thrived. It’s an umbrella under which opponents of the current regime can gather, but even then not everyone wants to be under the same umbrella,” says Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.

Indeed, the CNRM has been hobbled by internal dissent. Some CNRP members spoke out against its formation, arguing it would be more effective to continue agitating for change under the CNRP banner, not a new one.

Moreover, some CNRP members loyal to Kem Sokha, whose Human Rights Party merged with the Sam Rainsy Party in 2012 to form the CNRP, think that Sam Rainsy is again trying to usurp power within opposition circles.

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy stepped down as president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party on Saturday. The exiled politician and his party members have come under rising political pressure ahead of crucial elections. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy
Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Since the CNRM has made little headway in Cambodia, it seems it will instead have to rely on support from abroad, says Paul Chambers, lecturer at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University, Thailand.

Other analysts reckon that the CNRM’s goals can only be achieved via the international community, namely by convincing the US and the European Union (EU) decide to impose stiffer economic sanctions on Hun Sen and the CPP.

Sanctions imposed on Cambodia’s clampdown have so far been tame, limited to foreign aid cuts and targeted travel bans, though both Washington and Brussels have threatened harsher measures if Hun Sen’s government continues down its current path towards full autocracy.

In February, Washington announced it will also end or curtail assistance programs that support Cambodian departments, including the taxation and armed forces ministries.

The Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment (CARI) Act was recently tabled in the US Senate and if passed would stiffen economic sanctions, including by freezing the US-based assets of Cambodian officials. It would also allow the US government to lobby international financial institutions to stop providing loans and aid to Cambodia.

The bill stops short, however, of calling for Cambodia’s removal from the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), a preferential trade measure for developing countries that benefits Cambodia’s crucial export-oriented garment industry.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) irons clothes at a factory compound on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on August 30, 2017. Photo: AFP/Stringer
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) irons clothes at a factory compound on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on August 30, 2017. Photo: AFP/Stringer

After Cambodia’s Senate election in February, at which the ruling CPP won every elected seat in the upper house, the EU responded with a warning that it was considering to exclude Cambodia from the “Everything But Arms” initiative, which grants tax-free and quota-free trade with the EU. Brussels also threatened “specific targeted measures” against certain Cambodian officials.

Some analysts reckon that Cambodia’s removal from US and EU preferential trade agreements are the only measures that might force Phnom Penh’s hand towards conciliation with the CNRP. But even that may not be enough, given Cambodia can turn to its patron China to help make up for any economic or financial shortfalls.

“The chances of sanctions are actually 50/50 in my view,” says Sophal Ear. “Bureaucracies work slowly, but opponents of the [Hun Sen] regime have some loyal friends in the US Senate, at the Heritage Foundation” – a US-based think tank – “and they appear to have influence in the State Department and the White House.

“I think the regime isn’t out of the woods yet. And this is easily a thread that, once pulled, will unravel: Europe and the US will act in concert.” It’s a thread the CNRM hopes BerlinRosen will help to pull by turning opinion in Washington against Hun Sen and his CPP in the name of rights and democracy.