About an hour’s drive from Siem Reap city, a gated farmstead lies just a few kilometers from Kulen mountain.
Signs on the property’s front fence forbid photos or recordings of the site, which otherwise looks like almost any other countryside estate in an area dotted with pepper, durian and mango plantations. But the stretch of land beyond the gate is no ordinary farm, and the signs out front give no hint of the fact that recording is a major activity at this place.
The property in Tbeng commune works as a key set for the regular programming of Khem Veasna, the firebrand head of the League for Democracy Party (LDP). The party, a vocal but relatively minor opposition, announced on March 5 that it would boycott Sunday’s commune election. LDP spokesman E Sangleng said the party had faced unfair treatment from the National Election Committee (NEC), which he rejected as politically compromised.
As part of its election coverage, VOD reached out to the party spokesman in the month before the polls to see if Veasna would discuss the future of the party, which has hinted at transitioning away from politics to become a social movement.
However, E Sangleng shut down the option of speaking with the president or other party officials, adding that they’d said all they wanted on social media.
“There’s nothing more to talk about here,” he said. “The LDP has already explained everything.”
Still, despite the hours of video available online of Veasna speaking and lecturing his followers — mostly on the dharma, or Buddhist teachings — the path for LDP remains unclear.
Veasna has long advocated for democracy, rule of law, and what he has called a true Buddhist path. He is known as a loud critic of both the ruling party as well as opposition figures Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, whom he has denounced as useless.
A long-time radio personality who has in recent years turned to digital channels, Veasna’s policy platform centered on what he calls the eight political principles. These are seen largely as a means of reducing the power of the prime minister and include such points as term limits and a “first past the post” voting system for Cambodia.
LDP has a strong base of support from young men, many of whom have been rigorous boosters of the party leader on social media. It’s not uncommon for these fans to choose an image of Veasna for their Facebook profile picture, or to share his self-development quotes online.
Veasna’s own frequent posts and livestreams have an audience of some 364,000 Facebook followers and 58,000 YouTube subscribers. Offline, the party’s billboards and signage still proliferate across Cambodia, mostly featuring either the party’s bell logo or an image of Veasna.
In a video posted on his YouTube channel last year, Veasna defended the LDP legacy in his characteristic style.
“We don’t do good deeds in order to go to heaven, we don’t give offerings to the monk who is bad — only the good one,” he said. “In politics, it is the same. We are showing them the deceiver, can you consider that? Did we help you or not?”
Veasna answered his own questions a moment later, using an insult to refer to critics.
“Ah samkis and mi samkis, they are foolish and bad, they said we don’t help the people,” he chided.
Whatever help LDP offered the public, the party’s reach seemed to fall short at the polling booth. The party won eight commune councilor seats in 2012, but gained just half as many in the pivotal commune elections of 2017. That year marked the first poll for the CNRP as a joint ticket, which likely pulled some enthusiasm away from smaller opposition groups.
Ith Sarum, a former LDP finance official who says he was ousted in 2012 after trying to limit and formalize Veasna’s use of party funds, criticized the organization’s highly visible footprint as “like a [hollow] gourd.”
“It is only seen as big, but there are no supporters,” Sarum said.
He dismissed the party’s official reason for the boycott, which E Sangleng has previously said was due to a change to some official documentation by the NEC.
Apparent signs of official bias hadn’t prevented the LDP from running in the National Election of 2018, the first after the court-ordered disbanding of the CNRP.
That contest was widely regarded as a sham, but presented an opportunity for other parties to take up the opposition mantle. LDP seemed ready to fill the niche, and mustered a rally with an estimated attendance of 70,000, a gathering Veasna told reporters at the time cost about $1 million to organize.
The party officially won almost 310,000 votes, a strong showing for an opposition party but not enough to break the CPP’s sweep of every seat in the National Assembly.
In 2020, after repeated electoral losses, Veasna declared he was leaving the political arena and was halfway to enlightenment. This is when he started referring to himself as a brahma, or religious title similar to heavenly king. Veasna appeared to turn more to his dharmic teachings than political organizing. Mostly from his Siem Reap farmstead, he lectures his followers on the finer points of Buddhist thought, often recording his speeches and posting them to social media.
Even before his turn away from politics, Veasna was well-known for making speeches criticizing establishment Buddhism in Cambodia for following what he has deemed a wrong path. He’s called corrupted monks “bag thieves,” and in the past few years has floated the idea of creating a new country called Sompon, or “League,” after his party.
His former finance deputy Sarum was dismissive of these righteous teachings. He spoke derisively of his former compatriot and called Veasna the “deceiver of the people.”
“Before, the LDP said there are no such good deeds better than doing politics to help the nation,” Sarum said. “But now, they said politics is not important, and [Veasna] has now become the universal king, like a god or something.”
Becoming Khem Veasna
Veasna is a former member of the Sam Rainsy Party who was reportedly dismissed in 2005 following an internal rift. He built a following as a radio speaker, and later built his personal brand as a passionate orator, mixing self-development rhetoric with sweeping, Buddhist-inspired speeches and scathing criticisms of wide sectors of Cambodian society.
He officially registered the LDP as a political party in 2006, and made his first run at the commune elections a year later. The party fielded candidates across 25 communes in the 2007 polls but proved unsuccessful in winning over the electorate.
Though supporters appreciate his blunt, often-inflammatory assessments, Veasna’s style has also found him enemies.
The party president has been sued by an irate donor accusing him of squandering his money; he’s been investigated for allegedly defaming Khmer people; and he’s even been the subject of a protest campaign by monks who objected to his criticism of the clergy.
Buth Seakne, a former LDP official who had a very public split with the party in 2017, has described Veasna to reporters in the past as “boastful.”
Seakne saw little separation between Veasna’s personal business interests and that of the party. With that, the flow of money through the LDP was also never transparent, Seakne claimed, and became a sensitive subject of conversation within the party.
“Veasna also said in the public forum saying that his money and party’s money are the same, so it means that all the party income is his,” Seakne told VOD.
“When there were questions regarding the source of income to [Veasna], he did not show transparency, but criticized the questioner, saying they didn’t believe in the chief or the party.”
Besides the Siem Reap farm compound, Veasna’s party has overseen other agricultural projects. According to Sarum, that included at one point a rubber plantation in Ratanakiri. In 2017, the party’s land dealings in Kampot province ended in a convoluted dispute in which police arrested 13 LDP supporters and accused them of clearing a section of Bokor National Park, as well as harassing local villagers.
Veasna called on his followers to protest the arrests and occupy the disputed area. The imprisoned supporters were charged with property damage and illegally claiming land.
Nowadays, Veasna appears to keep to a quieter life on his farmstead near Kulen, where villagers say the party faithful help to raise bees for honey and tend to other small-scale agricultural production.
When supporters aren’t working, according to a woman who emerged from the front gate to politely tell reporters they could not enter, they spend time listening to Veasna deliver lectures on the dharma.
Some of these talks are recorded and published on Veasna’s YouTube channel. But aside from that digital outreach — and the signs plastered across the country which still bear the party logo — the LDP seems to have largely withdrawn to its own small realm.
Veasna’s once-regular public forums in Siem Reap, Battambang, Phnom Penh or Prey Veng have tapered since 2018. He now mostly holds the events via live videos on social media.
Working the Land
Recent posts from Veasna’s Facebook page show LDP supporters constructing a new garden and planting trees on their farm.
Occasionally, he hosts the Khem Veasna Talk Show, a digital program in which he shares Buddhist lessons with LDP disciples young and old, sitting before him in white clothes.
In early May, VOD reporters visiting the area spoke with a man staying directly next door to the party compound who identified himself only as Norm.
He was watching over a small shop in front of a pepper farm owned by his sister, who Norm said is locked in a dispute with the party over the title to a plot of land near their current properties.
That land is now under court supervision, and has been for the past few years. Norm told reporters he’s not afraid of the LDP, but is still wary to even walk on the land. He says party supporters have accosted him and his sister’s family, at one point calling on the military police to intervene.
“If we enter, they will say we came to steal their land, so they will arrest us,” Norm said, adding that people he said were affiliated with LDP came with a “big camera” previously to take photos of his sister and her husband at a negotiation.
Tbeng commune chief Heap Tha said the party has been involved in a few other conflicts, but has cooperated with local officials to resolve them. He didn’t know about the land issue, and said he’d look into it.
Other villagers in the area had no issues with the party, though seemed to know little about its purpose. Some had no idea who Veasna was, and had never heard of the LDP. One woman said she sold vegetables to the people in the party compound, but had been asked to wait outside its gates.
On the other side of the fence, Veasna and his followers are left to build their movement into whatever it will become. For the man who made his name on the power of speech, the lectures are likely to continue.
“They said we don’t help anyone — those are other people’s sayings,” Veasna mused again in his video. “Sometimes they do not understand. Sometimes, they understand but they frame us. But the most important thing is do you know yourself clearly or not — what are you doing, do you see the value of your work or not?”