These are troubled times in Cambodia. A disputed election last year prompted ongoing protests and opposition boycotts. Emboldened by a surprisingly strong performance in the July 28 polls, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been insistent on calling for an investigation into election irregularities. Strongman ruler Hun Sen has been equally stubborn in resisting them.
Entering 2014, and the protests have spread, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to demand Hun Sen’s resignation. Joining the CNRP were unions, notably from the country’s crucial garment industry, demanding a hike in their minimum wage.
Those protests prompted a government crackdown last week, resulting in a number of deaths and throwing the protests into disarray. Court summons were issued for opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, and Cambodia is on the verge of returning to a police state.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The Diplomat met with Rainsy in the weeks prior to these latest developments. Despite the demands of a grueling schedule, the 64-year-old former finance minister remained indefatigable. Undeterred by Germany’s recent pledge of a substantial increase to the aid budget of Cambodia, Rainsy maintained his faith in the “discrete type of diplomacy”: “this [Germany’s aid pledge] is what was announced officially, what was made public. But I’m sure there is strong advice behind [the announcements],” Rainsy said, adding that “we have many friends, many people who understand the situation in Cambodia. And I think they are at least putting the brake on bureaucrats who want to resume business as usual with the Cambodian government.”
Whatever is taking place behind the scenes, publically the international community remains broadly quiet. The escalation of the party’s sporadic protests of recent months marks a redoubling of domestic efforts to oust the government and a whole-hearted commitment to widespread mobilization as the leverage required to do so. Rainsy explained that “the pressure from the grassroots is to remain strong, not to negotiate or bargain for any position,” and the sheer scale of events since have largely vindicated Rainsy’s wager that a latent appetite for sustained direct action was ripe to be capitalized.
With the CNRP’s attention fixed on the streets though, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have pushed ahead regardless of the opposition’s refusal to take up their seats in the National Assembly. Despite facing no discernible international or domestic security threat, in November the Cambodian government approved a 17 percent boost in military spending, up to $468 million for 2014. This was roughly double the amount allocated to health expenditure or education. The announcement was greeted by silence from the CNRP. Rainsy explained the reticence by arguing that “budgets in Cambodia are just paper. They are very theoretical. Budgets in Cambodia have never been implemented. There are parallel budgets, there are ways of fooling the public so we are not going to play that game.”
In other quarters, some suggested this was a missed opportunity to perform an important democratic function, a function not necessarily mutually exclusive to the CNRP’s continuing boycott of the National Assembly. Speaking to The Diplomat, Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (who is rumored to have political ambitions of his own), said that the opposition has “missed so many opportunities.” Virak added: “If they structure it properly they can still criticize and [conduct] a proper analysis and come up with proper policy [proposals] through the media. You don’t have to do it through the National Assembly.”
But Rainsy stressed that his is a party of protest, not of opposition in the parliamentary sense, instead laying bare his radical ambitions to provoke civil unrest by punishing the government’s growth figures: “We will continue the boycott [of the National Assembly] to deny legitimacy to the current government and because of [resulting] economic confidence problems, the economic situation will become problematic. And economic problems will lead to social problems and social problems will lead to political problems.” Establishing an independent investigative committee remains indefinitely the CNRP’s singular focus, and in the meantime, Rainsy insists, it is not his party’s role to offer concrete legislative alternatives to those of the government. Rainsy dismissed the idea of forming an extra-parliamentary shadow cabinet to scrutinize government policy, explaining “that is not a real issue,” and that “we stand on very high moral ground. We just want the truth to be exposed.”
Rainsy is buoyed by recent events across the Kingdom’s northwestern border, following Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s call for snap elections in February. After a controversial amnesty bill was passed by Thailand’s lower house in November, mounting anti-government pressure has led to an early poll to decide Thailand’s political future. Rainsy said: “now we have the same ideas, because the Cambodian people have even more compelling reasons [to protest] than the Thai demonstrators…we feel much anchorage from these events in Thailand.”
Rainsy described the situation in Cambodia as equally “unforeseeable, unpredictable” as those in Thailand, suggesting that “if a female, a young prime minister was dignified and courageous enough to resign because she is facing a protest, a contest, a legitimacy problem” then CNRP supporters should expect Prime Minister Hun Sen “to follow Yingluck’s example.”
Despite this optimism, John Ciorciari, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy explains that although the Cambodian protestors do indeed have stronger arguments that the current government suffers from a legitimacy deficit, the Thai protestors have more friends and in higher places: “in Thailand, yellow-shirt protestors are identified with the urban elite and have powerful allies in the armed forces, Democrat Party, judiciary and Royal Palace” Ciorciari said via email. Given Hun Sen’s stranglehold on the military, the judiciary and the press, the CNRP are rank outsiders: “that makes it much less likely Cambodian protestors will win the types of concessions Thai yellow-shirts have won,” Ciorciari added.
During the interview Rainsy again repeated the slur that had landed him in hot water earlier in the day: “Hun Sen cannot do less than a Thai female prime minister otherwise he will appear as a coward, someone who is very cheap,” he said, having urged Hun Sen not to be “weaker than a female” at Freedom Park that morning. This year’s elections saw the first drop in the number of female MPs for 20 years, and the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) issued an open letter two days later expressing “grave concerns” over the CNRP’s use of “derogatory comments” at a “crucial time for encouraging gender equality, in politics and in all other areas of society.”