Time for change

Can Cambodia’s opposition gain strength in the upcoming election while Sam Rainsy remains its figurehead?

Sacha Passi
June 20, 2013

Can Cambodia’s opposition gain strength in the upcoming election while Sam Rainsy remains its figurehead?

By Sacha Passi
“Are you saying that Cambodia currently has democratic freedoms? I would question that,” said Laura Thornton, senior director for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Cambodia (NDI). “The new Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) can still participate in the elections and if they win the majority of seats in the National Assembly will be able to form a government and set its leadership path… but the leader of the opposition [Sam Rainsy] is in exile. He cannot stand in the election. His name has been removed from the voters list.”

Time for change
Illustration: Victor Blanco for SEA Globe
Known as an outspoken government critic, Rainsy’s political career began with Prince Ranariddh’s Funcinpec party in 1989 when he became a European representative for the prince while living in Paris. After returning to Cambodia in 1992 he was elected a member of parliament for Siem Reap province, followed by a post as minister of finance before he was expelled from the Funcinpec party after losing a vote of no confidence in 1994. On September 23, 2010, Rainsy was sentenced in absentia to ten years in prison on charges of spreading disinformation and falsifying maps – charges largely touted as politically motivated. The 64-year-old has lived in self-imposed exile since 2009.

With Cambodia’s national election due in July, Sam Rainsy’s physical absence from the election campaign is a stark reminder that the $3-billion Peace Plan brokered with the United Nations in 1991 to assist a transitional administration and establish democracy, remains a work in progress.
In November 2012 the National Election Committee (NEC) essentially blocked the main opposition leader’s bid for office in the July 28 vote when Sam Rainsy was removed from the electoral list on the grounds that he is a convicted criminal (see box, above). Despite Sam Rainsy vowing to return to the country for the election, and Prime Minister Hun Sen – leader of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) – stating that Sam Rainsy is free to return at any time if he is prepared to answer to Cambodian law, the fact that Rainsy faces at least a decade in prison on his return has kept him away.
“Sam Rainsy’s name has resonance for Cambodians and Cambodians in diaspora who were inspired by his courageous move from Funcinpec, and who have respect for his continual speaking out against human rights abuses in Cambodia,” said Trude Jacobsen, assistant director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University. “The majority of these [people]  however, are not part of the existing [electoral] system in Cambodia.”
In the lead up to the polls, certain issues, such as the independence of the NEC, equal access to media for political parties, and the conflict of interest in the voter registration process being carried out by elected commune councils, cannot be ignored. But neither can the question of whether CNRP leader Sam Rainsy still has the weight of a man once revered for his courage in fighting against the status quo, or whether he is blowing smoke from afar for the sake of political rhetoric.
Hun Sen has focused his electoral campaign largely on the economy, growth and the occasional scare tactic, such as a warning in April that an election loss for the CPP could incite a civil war if Sam Rainsy, as promised, tried to convict unnamed members of the government over their alleged roles in the Khmer Rouge regime. However, Sam Rainsy also hasn’t shied away from extravagant promises in the search for votes.
The leader of the strongest opposition party – a merger between the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party – recently vowed a government led by the CNRP would “stop predatory corruption, which will allow it to raise the minimum salary for civil servants, police and soldiers to one million riel ($250) a month” – more than four times the current minimum monthly wage of $61. Furthermore, by stopping corruption the CNRP “will also improve the education system for your children and medical care for your families”.
They are claims, Jacobsen said, that are not likely in the foreseeable future. “It is not realistic to think that corruption can be eliminated in the next generation, let alone five years,” she said. “If nothing else, where is the additional money going to come from? It’s not as if people pay taxes from which revenue can be generated.”
There is no question Sam Rainsy has provided a voice for the Cambodian diaspora, but whether he offers the people a realistic alternative is open to interpretation.
“I cannot see that the CNRP will benefit from Sam Rainsy leading it under the current circumstances, despite my respect for the man and his mission,” said Jacobsen. “Sam Rainsy is in exile and his name removed from the NEC list. There is no way to affect change without engaging the system.”
Also view:
“Hearts and minds” – Is Cambodia’s political environment encouraging a muted voter generation or are they happily disengaged?
“Sibling rivalry” – After five years sitting on the sidelines of Thai politics, Yaowapa Wongsawat could soon find herself appointed Thailand’s next prime minister
“Rules of the game” – Despite being brought into the fold of Vietnam’s high-ranking officials to help weed out corruption, Nguyen Ba Thanh is no stranger to underhand dealings

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