Tank Spotting as Sam Rainsy Returns

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy is encouraging post-election protestors. Is it really helping his cause?

Tank spotting has become something of a national obsession around the Cambodian capital. Reports of Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) – often mistaken for tanks – troops, arms and razor wire being deployed around the capital dominate talk in the media, pubs and cafes alike.

Their deployment came after opposition threats to mount protests on the streets of the capital amid claims of cheating at last month’s election as Sam Rainsy, leader of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), returned after his daughter’s wedding in the United States.

However, the military deployment has been low key. APCs are being kept out of view, hidden in pagodas along major highways on the outskirts of town. Analysts told The Diplomat they were being positioned to prevent people from heading into the capital if the protests materialize.

The decision was heavy handed and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who won the July 28 election with a handy if reduced majority, has been characterized as a graceless bully as a result. But the behavior of Rainsy has often been irresponsible.

In the event of soldiers taking to the streets, the opposition leader had urged his supporters to approach soldiers and offer them flowers. His “Posey Revolution” came despite the fact that he led the opposition to its fourth successive loss in as many elections. There has even been a push from those around him to label upcoming protests as a “Cambodian Spring.”

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While allegations of cheating appear to have considerable merit and CNRP supporters are correct in being outraged and do have a right to demonstrate, it remains doubtful that Rainsy would have won even if no cheating had taken place.

At best, and according to his own count, he might have won a one or two seat majority in the National Assembly, which would in that event prove ungovernable. Rainsy failed to win a clear mandate and so he is left urging supporters to confront soldiers and their tanks with flowers.

Last week police arrested four people they said were believed to be involved in a conspiracy hatched by a dissident Khmer-American group plotting to topple Hun Sen.

The four – two men and two women – were arrested after at­tempting to hand out 1,000 yellow roses to soldiers and police along with cards urging them to turn their weapons “against the despot.”

Common sense and a cool head have never been Rainsy’s strongest points. He has not won the support of the international community, and importantly the United States, because his own results at this election were underwhelming.

His insistence that protests are inevitable, if he does not have his way on a probe into the allegations of fraud, is only further antagonizing a needless confrontation. If Rainsy is serious about running a government then its time he started behaving like an opposition leader.

The National Election Committee (NEC) has been rebuked for its lack of partiality in its handling of the poll and complaints over electoral irregularities. With 55 seats, or about 45 percent of representatives, in the National Assembly the CNRP should be demanding a louder voice within the bureaucracy and more of its people on the boards of bodies like the NEC and in government committees responsible for appointments.

But such talk has been persistently drowned out by threats of confrontation from both sides of politics consumed with tank spotting, which has done little more than scare the broader population, further muddy an already dirty political game and cast Rainsy and Sen in an equally bad light.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.