At the crossroads

After many months of protests and rounds of negotiations, the Kingdom’s two main parties have struck a deal. But in a country with a youthful population and old-school leaders, it remains to be seen whether politicians can meet rising expectations

Sebastian Strangio
September 1, 2014
At the crossroads
Making a point: CNRP president Sam Rainsy, a former minister of economy and finance, has had a long-standing rivalry with Prime Minister Hun Sen. Photo: Kimlong Meng

On August 5, 55 elected lawmakers from the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) donned their traditional purple pantaloons and were finally sworn into the country’s National Assembly. In doing so, they brought an end to the protracted political deadlock that had paralysed Cambodia since a disputed election last year. As opposition lawmakers entered parliament, normality resumed in the capital Phnom Penh. The unfortunately named ‘Freedom Park’, barricaded and guarded since protests in January, was reopened and restored to the public. The tense standoff between Cambodia’s two largest parties – one on the rise, the other battling the accretions of age and decades-long incumbency – was finally at an end.

Power player: Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, has managed to stay in the political top spot for almost 30 years. Photo: Reuters
Power player: Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, has managed to stay in the political top spot for almost 30 years. Photo: Kimlong Meng

What will happen next is unclear. When Cambodians went to the polls on July 28 in 2013, they upturned their country’s political landscape. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has controlled the country in various guises since 1979, reeled as its share of National Assembly seats was slashed from 90 to just 68 – its worst electoral performance since 1998. The remaining 55 seats were won by the CNRP, which had deftly capitalised on the simmering discontent with the 29-year rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his deputy Kem Sokha immediately claimed they were robbed of victory and demanded a UN-backed investigation into voter fraud. To drive their demands home they boycotted the newly elected National Assembly and launched a campaign of colourful public demonstrations at Freedom Park, a government-sanctioned ‘protest zone’ in the centre of the city. The wave of opposition peaked in late 2013, when more than 100,000 people marched through Phnom Penh, openly calling for Hun Sen’s resignation – the largest sign of opposition for 15 years. At the same time, the two parties negotiated behind closed doors, bartering and trading, seeking a workable end to the deadlock. 

In the end, the agreement that broke the deadlock was born not of amity but of confrontation: On July 15, during an opposition protest to “free Freedom Park”, CNRP supporters set upon a squad of thuggish district security guards, beating several bloody. In the aftermath, seven CNRP politicians were arrested, slapped with trumped-up charges and locked up at Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh. In typical Cambodian style, the wheel turned quickly; within days, the flashpoint had led to a resumption of talks, and then an eventual resolution.

So where to from here? In purely institutional terms, the settlement looks promising for the opposition. In exchange for ending its boycott of the National Assembly, the seven CNRP detainees were released from prison, and the party received the chairmanships of five of the parliament’s ten special commissions and the post of National Assembly vice-president. The agreement also reconfigured the National Election Committee (NEC), previously a CPP fief whose reform was a key opposition demand after the election. The nine members on the new-look NEC will now be split between four delegates from each party, with the balance held by one ‘neutral’ delegate – Pung Chhiv Kek, the respected founder and president of the human rights group Licadho.

A fortnight later, at the first joint session of the National Assembly, CNRP president Rainsy hailed a new dawn in Cambodian politics. “To guarantee the implementation of this agreement, both parties must carry it out with optimism, honesty and belief in each other, even though we will be met with obstacles and difficulties,” he said in his address to the parliament. Hun Sen described the occasion in slightly less sunny terms, as “the start of a long process together”.

As one deadlock ends in a springtime of optimism, another more crucial one is almost certainly beginning.

But despite the apparent optimism that attended the end of the deadlock, history tells a far muddier story – a story of deals made and broken, of twists and turns, of unending political gymnastics in a land where power resides not in political institutions, but in the powerful people who occupy them. As one deadlock ends in a springtime of optimism, another more crucial one is almost certainly beginning.

To start with, analysts say it is more than likely that the canny Hun Sen, who has survived repeated cycles of Cambodian history since becoming prime minister in 1985, will attempt to manipulate the agreement for his own gain. As the royalist Funcinpec party discovered after entering a coalition with the CPP in 1993, a share of government posts and ministerial portfolios is no guarantee of real power. Despite winning that election, Funcinpec officials quickly found themselves cut out of decision-making – “shuffling meaningless documents, attending vacuous meetings, reading newspapers”, as the historian Steve Heder wrote. 

Under coalitions brokered after elections in 1998 and 2003, Hun Sen slowly picked off Funcinpec’s leadership with threats and inducements, and the party eventually collapsed in ignominy at the 2013 election, failing to win a single seat. “Hun Sen sliced [Funcinpec] up like you sliced a salami, and then [he ate] them one by one,” said Benny Widyono, a former UN envoy to Cambodia.

Observers said the CNRP now runs the risk of its strong electoral showing being paid out, Funcinpec-style, in a debased coinage of powerless posts in powerless institutions. “I have no reason to believe that the way in which the CPP and CNRP interact has changed fundamentally,” said Sophal Ear, the author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy. Ear said that “by hook or by crook”, Hun Sen would try to turn the arrangement to his advantage, exploiting ambiguities in the deal, buying off the opposition, and wielding the salami knife with as much relish as ever. As Ear said: “The devil is in the details.” 

But Hun Sen will face unprecedented challenges in manipulating his way into another decade in power. At its heart, the surge of support for the opposition at last year’s election was an indication that the CPP’s method of ruling Cambodia had become unsustainable. The party has built its legitimacy on the fact that it cast out the Khmer Rouge and brought a semblance of peace, stability and economic growth to a war-ravaged country. At the same time, it has worked hard to buy off, eliminate or otherwise marginalise rival centres of power, foreclosing any alternative path for Cambodia.

But profound social and demographic changes have weakened the CPP’s political hold. The election in 2013 was the youngest in Cambodia’s history: about 3.5 million of the 9.5 million registered voters were between the ages of 18 and 30 years, and 1.5 million of them – more than 15% – were voting for the first time. The large majority of Cambodians now have no memory of the Khmer Rouge, are less scared of speaking out and are no longer willing to accept Pol Pot’s nightmare as a benchmark. 

First-time voters have grown up in a very different country to the one their parents knew. Under Hun Sen, land grabs and hurricane capitalism have uprooted tens of thousands. As rural migrants have flooded to the cities, joining a growing urban working class of garment and construction workers, they have escaped the smothering influence of CPP village chiefs and commune authorities – the bedrock of the CPP’s power since the 1980s. Voters also have greater access to information than ever before. Urban migration and the proliferation of internet access and social media networks such as Facebook have fostered a dawning sense of awareness that local issues – land grabs, deforestation, radiant levels of corruption – are part of a larger system, one that had created massive amounts of wealth yet largely ignored the needs of ordinary people. 

One of these people was Yiv Yek Khuan, a 67-year-old woman who I met after the election in a small hamlet in Kampong Cham province. In the broad brown sweep of the Mekong River she owned a small wooden house and a sunny yard where laundry billowed and pink fish were laid out drying in the sun. 

“I still remember and pay gratitude to January 7, to the Hun Sen government, which liberated me from the killing,” she said. “But recently I haven’t been satisfied with this. The paying of gratitude never ends.” As time goes by, fewer people like Yek Khuan are carrying portraits of Hun Sen during demonstrations, calling for his kingly intercession in local disputes. More of them are criticising him. More are connecting the dots.

Hun Sen has responded to the changes as he always has – with threats and hand-outs. After the election the premier promised reform, telling officials during a six-hour speech in September 2013 to “scrub your body” and “heal our disease”. The party borrowed from the most popular elements of the opposition platform and promised wage hikes to teachers, garment workers and civil servants. It also reshuffled its cabinet, moving on a handful of rusted officials and replacing them with respected technocrats.

But can an old tiger change its stripes? Some observers are sceptical. “The ruling CPP has not improved and cannot quit its political culture of using violence and courts to suppress rivals,” said Ou Ritthy, a blogger and political analyst based in Phnom Penh. Sure enough, in the countryside, far from the international panopticon of Phnom Penh, the land grabs and logging have continued. Meanwhile, amid much talk of reform, the CPP-controlled courts prosecuted a series of legally spurious cases against demonstrators arrested during post-election protests. Throughout the deadlock the message was clear: Reform would come like everything else in Hun Sen’s Cambodia – as a gift from the party. 

But with the opposition surging, and commune and national elections scheduled for 2017 and 2018, it remains an open question whether tweaks to Hun Sen’s system will allow him to stem the circular inertia of Cambodia’s patronage state long enough for him to retain power until the age of 74 – his planned age of retirement.

Equally uncertain, however, is whether the opposition can offer a credible alternative. The CNRP has proven itself good at organising street protests and political stunts, but it’s unclear if the party has the resources to run the country, or pay for the massive wage hikes and pensions it has promised voters. And despite the impressive unity the party has shown since forming a little more than two years ago, its two main leaders, Rainsy and Sokha, have a history of conflict and mistrust. At lower levels, the party is essentially divided into factions loyal to the two leaders, who have differed on key aspects of the negotiations with the CPP. According to Ritthy, Sokha was unhappy with the final agreement with the CPP; he wanted the CNRP to make greater demands of Hun Sen before ending its boycott. Tensions also exist at the ideological level. Some CNRP officials, such as the charismatic Mu Sochua, who rose to prominence during a legal spat with Hun Sen in 2009, constitute what might be termed the ‘Berkeley wing’ of the party: foreign-educated, urbane, antiracist. But many others in the CNRP still traffic in demagogic criticisms of Vietnam, describing the Hun Sen government as a puppet of Hanoi, illegitimate by definition. In June this year, Sokha went so far as to blame the yuon, as Vietnamese are often derogatorily termed, for the bridge stampede at Diamond Island in 2010, which killed 353 people and injured many hundreds more. “They created the scene to kill Khmers at Koh Pich,” he said.

This has created a schizophrenic party, which tries simultaneously to court Cambodian voters, foreign donor constituencies and the shrill diaspora communities whose donations keep the party afloat. The result is a series of scattered promises to end corruption, boost wages, put Hun Sen on trial at The Hague and throw out the Vietnamese. One minute, policies are wrapped in the language of human rights and the next, in the language of ethno-nationalism. Some are impossible to implement, others simply contradictory. 

The challenge for the CNRP will be turning its scattershot platform into a focused legislative agenda while maintaining its unity as Hun Sen wields the carrot and the stick. As the political battle resumes, Ritthy said the Rainsy-Sokha relationship will be critical for the party. “Even though Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have shown some different political strategies and approaches to deal with the CPP so far… the two can compromise,” he said. Anything else, he added, would be “suicide” for the leaders. “They are old now [and] 2017 and 2018 seem to be their last battles,” Ritthy said. “The 2017 and 2018 elections are the best chances of their lives.” 

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