Cambodian politics is in the midst of an ugly crisis. Prime Minister Hun Sen, after officially winning the 2013 election by just a narrow margin and facing months of massive anti-government protests, seemed to have regained control. Yet in recent weeks the authorities have cracked down on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, C.N.R.P.
For a prime minister who has mastered a form of kleptocratic electoral authoritarianism during three decades in power, the resort to violence, intimidation and judicial harassment betrays Hun Sen’s great anxiety about the prospects of his party in the next general election in 2018.
On Oct. 26, two C.N.R.P. parliamentarians were pulled out of their cars outside the National Assembly and badly beaten by thugs while the police looked on. The same day a mob descended on the house of the C.N.R.P.’s deputy leader, Kem Sokha, pelting it with rocks while his wife cowered indoors. A few days later, Kem Sokha was unseated as first vice-president of the National Assembly.
On Nov. 13, an arrest warrant was issued against the C.N.R.P.’s leader, Sam Rainsy, who was traveling out of the country, in connection with a 2008 defamation case brought by the foreign minister. Sam Rainsy was soon stripped of his position as National Assembly representative, and of parliamentary immunity. Several more dubious charges have been brought against him since then; he now faces at least 17 years in prison. He has not returned to Cambodia.
A former royalist born into a once-privileged political family who likes to call attention to Hun Sen’s Khmer Rouge past, Sam Rainsy has been a mainstay of Cambodia’s democratic opposition since the mid-1990s. He has spent years in self-imposed exile to avoid politically motivated charges, returning shortly before the 2013 election only after receiving a royal pardon.
Hun Sen’s strategy seems to be to keep Sam Rainsy away rather than imprison him and risk turning him into a democracy icon like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But Sam Rainsy has yet to call the bluff. On Nov. 14, just after the first arrest warrant, he told hundreds of Cambodians gathered in South Korea, “Cambodia is my homeland — I absolutely must go back and rescue our nation,” adding, “If I must die, let it be.” Two days later, he postponed his return indefinitely.
Having failed again to rise to the occasion, he now tours foreign capitals complaining about Hun Sen’s abuses of power. Meanwhile back home the C.N.R.P. has yet to establish a viable, comprehensive policy platform. Worse, at times the party unabashedly stirs up Cambodians’ historical animosity toward Vietnam and the ethnic Vietnamese population of Cambodia.
Cambodians deserve better. They made clear in 2013 that they wanted change, and some took great risks to say so. Armed with smartphones and a new political fervor, they poured into the streets during the campaign. Then, after credible allegations of election fraud, they challenged the narrow victory of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party by rallying unprecedented demonstrations organized by the C.N.R.P.
Those gatherings recurred over several months, until early January 2014, when state security forces fired into a crowd of garment workers, killing several people. The C.N.R.P., critically weakened and strategically at a loss, then sued for peace. By the summer of 2014, after the party had boycotted Parliament for nearly a year, Sam Rainsy made a deal with Hun Sen. The C.N.R.P.’s members-elect would join Parliament and drop any complaints, on the promise that the electoral system would be reformed ahead of the 2018 election.
This so-called culture of dialogue has now been discredited, and not only because it couldn’t prevent an onslaught against the C.N.R.P. With both Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy reverting to type, the political elite seems increasingly out of touch with the electorate, and serious policy thinking is falling by the wayside. Hun Sen is too busy inventing various bogeymen to divert the Cambodian public’s attention from the corruption, corporate pillaging and human rights abuses occurring on his watch. Sam Rainsy still seems to prefer playing at activist-in-exile than work at becoming a leader-in-waiting.
The Cambodians who mobilized in 2013 still want change, especially the young. In 2013, approximately 3.5 million young Cambodians were eligible to vote, out of a total of 9.5 million eligible voters, and the proportion is predicted to be higher in 2018. That age group remains politically engaged: The Facebook page of Voice of America Khmer has over 2.5 million “likes,” Sam Rainsy’s page has close to 1.9 million and Hun Sen’s more than 1.4 million.
Yet more and more Cambodians risk feeling marginalized if politicians continue to avoid serious policy discussions about critical issues.
As Cambodia has grown richer, inequality has been rising. Narrowing that gap would mean reining in wealthy tycoons, penalizing corruption and encouraging small businesses. Substantive electoral reform is vital to avoid the shortcomings of the 2013 election. So is institutional reform, especially to depoliticize the judiciary, the police and the military. The economic and security integration of the Asean community requires combating terrorism, better managing refugees and legalizing the status of migrant workers.
These would be vexing issues anywhere at any time, and they are complicated by the Cambodian government’s stubborn resistance to change. But the C.N.R.P.’s solipsism isn’t helping. It is alienating voters and dividing reformists, some of whom are turning to fledgling political parties born of disaffection with the C.N.R.P., like the Grassroots Democracy Party and the Beehive Social Democratic Party, which still lack the critical mass to influence much change.
The pattern of political gamesmanship in Cambodia — violence and bogus criminal charges on the one hand, and exile, protests and boycotts on the other — is an obstacle to devising concrete policy solutions to Cambodia’s most pressing problems. Old habits die hard, if they die at all. It’s time for a changing of the guard, on all sides.
Ou Virak is president of Future Forum, a policy research institute in Phnom Penh.