Cambodia's ruling party hammers opposition as election looms

Cambodia’s opposition leader is in self-exile, his deputy is facing questionable charges and civil society leaders are behind bars. So what is behind the country’s political turmoil?

Sophal Ear
July 4, 2016
Cambodia's ruling party hammers opposition as election looms

Cambodia’s opposition leader is in self-exile, his deputy is facing questionable charges and civil society leaders are behind bars. So what is behind the country’s political turmoil?

The current political crisis in Cambodia sees the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) applying pressure on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) under the guise of a prostitution scandal in the lead-up to crucial local elections next year and the national election in 2018. With CNRP president Sam Rainsy in self-imposed exile in France, and under threat of arrest upon return over a slew of defamation cases, there’s no dead horse to flog but local ones. The CNRP’s deputy president, Kem Sokha, is the logical target.

Any means: Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party appear to be tightening their grip on power in Cambodia

Sokha allegedly has a mistress, and his act has been associated with prostitution, which was made illegal in 2008. Taped conversations between the pair were recorded and released via Facebook. However, so many ruling party politicians are known to keep mistresses – a number of whom have died through acid attacks and gunshots – that it becomes very odd that the ruling party has chosen this particular crime to attack the opposition. Surely, people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

The details in Sokha’s case are almost irrelevant because the shenanigans are the same as tactics used by the CPP in the past: secret recordings made to embarrass and now to prosecute the opposition. However, it’s not just the opposition this time around – human rights defenders are being targeted as well.

Four staffers from local rights group Adhoc, and a former employee who now works for Cambodia’s National Election Committee, were arrested and jailed in early May on bribery charges linked to the affair, while a UN worker – who is technically immune from arrest – was charged in absentia after leaving the country. The byzantine nature of this ‘crime’, involving the alleged payment of $150 to the mistress to convince her to lie about the affair (thus qualifying as an act of corruption), is baffling.

Behind the crackdown on NGO workers is a desire to knock out a variety of enemies at the same time. The perceived friend of your enemy is your enemy. NGO workers fight for human rights and demand accountability, neither of which are part of the CPP agenda.

For too long, civil society has been a critic of the ruling party, and that makes it a target. At the time of writing, according to local rights group Licadho, there were 29 political prisoners in jail in the country. It would be difficult to imagine something like this happening unless you were in Cambodia in 2005 and 2006 during another mid-point in the election cycle, when Yeng Virak of the Community Legal Education Centre was arrested, along with Rong Chhun of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, Kem Sokha when he was at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, and others. It’s been ten years, so it’s time for history to repeat itself.

A much-touted but now-defunct “culture of dialogue” between Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen – which saw the leader of the opposition and the leader of the ruling party hang out together and praise one another – was always likely to be fleeting. Forged when the CNRP ended a post-2013 election boycott of the parliament, this surreal deal has lasted surprisingly long. It fell apart because there was nothing there. This is about the political boom and bust cycle of Cambodia, and right now, it’s time for a bust. We’re not seeing anything we have not seen before, and it is likely that we will see rapprochement before too long, as the election draws near. There will have to be a denouement just before the election to allow the opposition – and the international community – the illusion of a competitive process.

The more the authorities crack down, the more they will play into the hands of the opposition. Political martyrs are being made; it’s the law of unintended consequences. If the CPP were to continue on this path, it would increase the odds of a backlash in which people become outraged by the suppression.

But the party will surely relax its metaphorical grip, and get back into the good graces of the EU and the US, by way of allowing Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia without fear of arrest and patching things up with the opposition.

It’s unlikely that we will see a repeat of the 2013 election, when the CNRP made substantial gains in the polls; that was as close as it gets. Hypothetically, if the opposition was allowed to come close to winning or even was allowed to win, that would be akin to 1993 all over again, when the CPP lost a UN-organised election to the royalist Funcinpec party. Sabre-rattling, threats to UNTAC to pack their bags, an attempted secession and the world’s first co-Prime Ministership is what happened then – there’s too much at stake for the ruling party to ever give up power peacefully. There are multiple generations of beneficiaries of the existing corrupt system of governance administered by the CPP – thousands of people are in positions of incredible power and wealth as a result – and that’s not counting Hun Sen’s extended family. It would be a disaster for the ruling party and for him personally.

It’s not likely the CPP will lose the election because, as Stalin said: “Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.”

Sophal Ear is an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, Los Angeles, the author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, and a co-author of The Hungry Dragon: How China’s Resource Quest Is Reshaping the World.

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