from Asia Unbound

Where Next for Cambodian Politics?


September 20, 2016

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Politics and Government

Hun Sen

Over the past two years, Cambodia’s government has steadily ramped up the pressure on the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), as well as on any civil society activists and journalists who question the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). In just the past year, security forces have cracked down on demonstrators holding regular Monday protests, while the government has pursued criminal charges against opposition leaders Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy. In July, someone murdered prominent activist Kem Ley in broad daylight at a gas station, and while police have arrested one suspect, the motive for why he would kill the activist remains murky.

Earlier this month, after Kem Sokha refused to surrender to police for months on dubious charges, a court sentenced him to jail. Now, as Kem Sokha still refuses to surrender to police, Prime Minister Hun Sen has taken an even tougher line, threatening to destroy any protesters and refusing to even negotiate with the CNRP while Kem Sokha remains holed up, according to Radio Free Asia. Co-opposition leader Sam Rainsy meanwhile remains in exile, facing his own criminal charges.

According to Radio Free Asia, Hun Sen recently told legislators,” You [the political opposition] can never threaten us with the demonstrations. Let me make it clear that it is not going to work that way … Don’t even think about it. If I ever enter into such negotiations I will be nothing short of a dog.” The Cambodia Daily reported even tougher comments from the prime minister. It noted that, “Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday said he would ‘eliminate’ opponents who dare to protest against his government during a speech in which he also declared that he personally ordered the military to deploy around the CNRP’s headquarters late last month.” Indeed, the Cambodian military recently held exercises close to CNRP headquarters.

Always dangerous, Cambodian politics now seem to have reached a new level of viciousness, in advance of 2017 location elections and 2018 national elections. The brutality of Cambodian politics has come in waves over the past three decades, with periods of intense discord and violence alternating with somewhat quieter times. This appears to be a time of discord and violence. The opposition plans to continue with mass demonstrations in Phnom Penh, while Hun Sen and the security forces prepare to battle them. Meanwhile, civil society leaders and journalists are complaining that they are facing a level of intimidation and threats unseen in the country since the early 2000s. But the 2000s was a time when Hun Sen had much greater control over Cambodian society. Between the early 2000s and 2013, the last national election, Hun Sen had consolidated his power, cowed opposition parties, and co-opted many opposition legislators; the prime minister probably was less fearful of his political future.

Where does Cambodian politics, which seemed poised for real change in 2013, after the CNRP nearly won national elections, go next? Most likely, the country is headed toward even greater distrust and violence. Hun Sen and the CPP are setting out a marker---they will give no ground in advance of the 2017 and 2018 elections. Hun Sen is even less constrained by any international norms than he was fifteen years ago---Cambodia’s economy is growing, aid and investment is flowing in from China, and the country has become an increasingly central player in ASEAN.

Yet unlike in the 2000s, the opposition is more unified, less likely to be co-opted, and more able to organize demonstrations and share information, using social media and not having to rely on word of mouth and the state-dominated broadcast media. Young, urban Cambodians have been registering to vote in record numbers; the country’s urban population has become much more knowledgeable about politics, and much more aware of the flaws of the CPP, over the past decade. Hun Sen’s monopoly on power remains strong, but his ability to control what Cambodians hear about the government has weakened substantially. And despite intimidation, opposition supporters have refused to halt their demonstrations in Phnom Penh and its outskirts.