After taking a relative drubbing during 2013 elections, when the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won only 68 of the 123-member parliament’s seats, the government headed by Hun Sen, is now trying to silence the opposition. Fearing a worse election result, Hun Sen is determined to intimidate the oppositon stay in power after community and general elections scheduled for 2017 and 2018, respectively.
A review of recent reports by Human Rights Watch makes for a grim reading. “Cambodia became engulfed in a human rights crisis after national assembly elections,” the human rights watchdog wrote about events unfolding in 2013.
The following year, the country witnessed “Killings by security forces, arrests of activists and opposition politicians, summary trials, and crackdowns on peaceful protest.” Last year, “Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government launched new assaults on human rights in Cambodia.”
The upper echelons of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the main opposition, have unsurprisingly been attacked. Last November, a court issued an arrest warrant for Sam Rainsy, the party's president, who stands accused of defamation in a case dating back to 2008, when he claimed that Foreign Minister Hor Namhong used to run a Khmer Rouge prison.
Judges found the CNRP's leader guilty and condemned him to two years in prison in 2011. He was forgiven by royal pardon two years later, but the lawsuit was “reactivated” in 2015 as Rainsy was traveling in South Korea. He has not returned yet, choosing self-exile in France instead.
Kem Sokha, the CNRP's vice-president, has spent the past few months hiding inside the party's headquarters, refusing to appear in court after being summoned in a controversial case related to prostitution. On September 9, a court convicted him in absentia for failing to show up, handing him a five-month sentence plus a fine.
Tensions reached a climax with the murder of Kem Ley, a political analyst and outspoken activist, who was gunned down in July. While there is no solid proof of responsibility, swirling rumors have it that the shooting was the icing on the cake of the ongoing crack-down.
Hardly any of this is unprecedented. Going back to the end of the Vietnamese occupation in 1989 and the creation of a formal democratic state, Cambodian politics has never been a peaceful affair. Violence marred the administration of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in the early 1990s, and tensions between the then-two Prime Ministers – Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh – exploded in 1997, as a bloody coup d'état engulfed Phnom Penh.
In the following years, cycles of repression have been followed by political deals and rapprochements between the ruling and the opposition groups. “The current crackdown is part of a long-standing pattern of loosening and tightening that Hun Sen and the CPP have employed to great political effect since 1993,” said Sebastian Strangio, the author of Hun Sen's Cambodia. “Throughout this period the party’s aim has remained constant: to strengthen their grip on power while maintaining just enough 'democracy' to keep foreign donor nations from pulling up stumps.”
But some see a difference this time around. For the first time since the putsch, the government appears truly at risk of losing out, as better educated and better informed citizens have grown increasingly resentful of the mismanagement their country is subjected to.
There is little doubt that such mismanagement is a real issue. Reports by the media and various NGOs have piled up over the years, detailing the systematic looting of the country's riches and the injustice suffered by common people.
Interestingly, the connection between private and political interests appears to be part of the reason why the government is so reluctant to give up power, observers say, for doing so would precipitate the personal fortunes of many powerful individuals. As Sotheara Yoeurng, an analyst with Politikoffee, a political discussion forum, puts it: “If they lose, what happens to their relatives, to their cronies, to the people who are connected to them?”
He argues that a political compromise should be sought, with the opposition committing itself not to damage Hun Sen's and his close associates' safety as a way to ease a transition, but such a deal is nowhere in sight. Hun Sen has once again raised the specter of civil unrest should the opposition win and remove CPP loyalists from the military and the police. Meanwhile, the opposition has been keen on attacking the government as a Vietnamese puppet – a popular claim, given that anti-Vietnamese sentiments run high in the kingdom.
The resulting political polarization raises a number of questions. The first is whether repression will intensify in the coming months or the ruling and opposition parties will manage to find a deal, as it happened in 2013, when Rainsy, who at the time was also in exile, was allowed to return to contest the polls.
Another is whether the CNRP can win even if the crackdown drags on. Most of those who spoke with Asia Sentinel claim that if the elections are free and fair, the opposition stands a chance, but few are optimistic. From his base in France, Sam Rainsy is out of reach, besides being blamed by some for once again beating a hasty retreat in the face of danger. So is Kem Sokha, a man known for his ability in raising support among the Cambodian rural population, a significant chunk of which constitutes the CPP electoral base.
“I doubt a repeat of 2013 is possible because the CNRP appears to be in disarray,” says Sophal Ear, an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles and author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy. “What’s different pre-2013 versus now is that they’ve neutralized Kem Sokha so he is out of commission, cooped-up in CNRP headquarters and unable to rally people.”
According to Cham Bunthet, another analyst with Politikoffee, even a return of the CNRP's leader would be unlikely to make a significant difference. “If Mr. Sam Rainsy is allowed back, there will be a political deal and any deal benefits the CPP more than the opposition,” he says. “Maybe they just want to destroy the CNRP. They have taken the head away and are now breaking them into pieces.