Cambodia: A Dangerous Game of Brinkmanship

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Cambodia: A Dangerous Game of Brinkmanship

The parties must begin talks before Cambodia passes the point of no return. But how to make that happen?

Cambodia: A Dangerous Game of Brinkmanship
Credit: REUTERS/Samrang Pring

Will the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) or the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) blink first? It’s a question that has been asked frequently since tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets of Phnom Penh to protest the July 28 election, which opposition leaders claim was plagued with massive irregularities. Talks between the two major parties have continued intermittently, without result. With no solution in sight, Cambodia is facing its most serious crisis in decades.

Leaders from both political parties have in the meantime ramped up their rhetoric, and there is no sign that they will tone things down any time soon. For the last five months, the CNRP has been demanding an independent investigation into last year’s elections, to vehement opposition from the CPP. More recently, the CNRP’s leaders have insisted on holding fresh elections while calling on Prime Minister Hun Sen to resign. They plan to hold longer and larger protests nationwide until the CPP concedes.

However, the presence of hundreds of riot police, barbed wire and heavily armed vehicles in Phnom Penh clearly indicate that the government is ready to face down opposition supporters. Certainly the ruling elites understand that violent crackdowns will only exacerbate the crisis and draw international condemnation. The experience of the Arab Spring suggests that peace can best be achieved through dialogue. Yet in recent weeks the demonstrations in Cambodia took another turn after garment factory workers in several parts of the country began striking over demands that their minimum wage be increased to 160 USD. The CNRP’s leaders quickly joined the chorus and blamed the government for failing to provide poor workers a living wage. Other groups sought to capitalize on the momentum to voice their discontent and pressure the CPP to give people more freedom. For example, Beehive Radio Director Mam Sonando, a vocal critic of government, joined the protest in hopes of expanding his station’s coverage and obtaining a TV license. The protests prompted a crackdown by the government, which left a number of people dead.

It’s not the first time that Cambodia’s politicians have engaged in brinkmanship. What makes this time different is that the CPP and the CNRP have jointly undermined the very institutions that formerly helped them mediate the conflicts and reconcile their differences. Without these institutions, confrontations, violent or not, between the authorities and protesters will only push the country to the brink of chaos. If the situation deteriorates to the point where neither party has an exit option, the country may be unable to return to peace and stability.

In past political deadlocks, King Norodom Sihanouk played an extremely important role in bringing the parties to the negotiating table under the banner of national unity and reconciliation. After months of painful talks, a deal would be hammered out and a coalition government formed. The monarch was such a towering figure in Cambodia’s politics, regardless of controversial decisions in the past, politicians could not afford to ignore or publicly defy him. With his death, the monarchy has faced an uphill battle to win that kind of popular support.

Rather than putting the institution of the monarchy beyond politics, King Norodom Sihamoni has been drawn into the middle of the mud-slinging. Politicians might have forgotten that whenever the monarch is seen to be taking sides, he risks losing the credibility and trust he needs to independently arbitrate political conflicts. Although the extent to which the monarchy has been politicized is not yet clear, what is clear is that the King’s independence will be closely scrutinized. Whether he can overcome such obstacles remains to be seen.

Another possible mediator is the business community. As an integral part of the national economy, both parties need to heed their advice. Moreover, many business elites are also major financial contributors to political parties, given them leverage to force a compromise. Their businesses will suffer if the current crisis drags on too long. The dispute over the minimum wage between the Garment Factories Association in Cambodia (GMAC) and workers has caused massive disruptions in the sector.

However, the involvement of business elites can also be problematic, since some of them are at the heart of the current crisis. Many protestors are extremely unhappy with being left out of the rapid economic growth Cambodia has enjoyed, and squarely blame the CPP and private companies for ignoring their plight. Protestors at Freedom Park often speak of land evictions, low wages, deforestation and a lack of jobs.

Mobilizing mass protests against the business community could have disastrous economic consequences. Cambodia needs to avoid a class war, and opposition leaders must avoid marginalizing business.

In addition, Cambodia is no stranger to seeking interventions from foreign nations when it comes to political deadlock. The Paris Peace Agreement in 1991 and the deal after the deadly clash in 1997 are just some of the successful examples. Now come reports that Hun Sen has asked a UN special envoy to pressure opposition leaders to rejoin parliament and agree to talks. The opposition itself also relies on support from the West to keep pressure on the ruling elites. However, instead of calling for sanctions and military interventions, they can engage these countries in a broader discussion as to how the current crisis can be solved without having to compromise democratic values or lose the opportunity for deeper reforms in the future.

This might sound simplistic. The decision to invite countries to be part of the negotiation process can also be controversial. For a long time, the government has been skeptical about the intentions of Western nations. Are they engaging Cambodia to promote democracy or are they advocating for regime change? The Chinese position is also unclear. While a Chinese state-run news agency has recently criticized the Cambodian government, China’s leaders have thrown their support behind those in power. Japan, France and Australia could be good candidates, since they have mediated past stalemates. More importantly, ASEAN should take this opportunity to play a more active role in preventing conflict within its region. A peaceful Cambodia is in the bloc’s interest, after all.

Although one or all of these options might work, the ball is in the court of the CPP and the CNRP. They have to want the dialogue to happen before anything can be agreed. If the parties are not willing to step back and compromise to get talks started, it will be almost impossible to prevent violence from exploding.

It is understandable that the CNRP’s leaders are trying to use the power of mass protests to force the CPP to concede. But they should recognize that the current movement could easily spiral out of control. Threats to block roads or occupy government buildings will only fuel the violence and put more lives in danger. The authorities can also use their threats as an excuse to crack down on protesters.

Violence can’t end the current crisis. The CPP’s decision to show some restraint in dealing with the opposition protesters since the July 28 election shows it understands the risks to its legitimacy that violence posts. Certainly, when authorities have clashed with protestors, as in November and then again two weeks ago, it has done little to weaken the determination of the opposition. Worse, the brutality has fed growing public resentment towards the government.

There is little doubt that the government can use coercive measures to crack down on opposition protesters, but it cannot keep the armed forces and riot police on the streets indefinitely. Without a solution that is acceptable to the opposition, the CPP will never be able to resolve the current crisis. Opposition movements might be temporarily crushed, but they can regroup and challenge the government again.

Rather than wasting time on personal attacks, leaders from both parties need to work on their differences and pave the way for long-term democratic reforms. The CPP and the CNRP must dial down their rhetoric and build momentum towards peace talks. The game of brinkmanship is far too dangerous to play, especially at a time when people are losing trust in the very institutions that traditionally help mediate conflicts.

The latest news now reports rumors of secret talks between the CPP and the CNRP about resolving the current crisis, although Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have denied this.  If the rumors turn out to be true, the opposition leaders will have questions to answer. Of course, dialogue is needed to end the deadlock, but Cambodia’s people also expect their leaders to do this in a transparent way, not sealing a deal behind closed doors and leaving the public in the dark.

National reconciliation is not something to be achieved only between the major political parties; it must also be between the government and its people. Arguably, the problems of widening inequality and social injustice are at the core of the current crisis. The fact that demonstrations have turned violent in the last few years is a clear sign that people don’t trust their leaders and government institutions to solve their problems and protect them from abuses of power. It is time for government and opposition leaders to improve the plight of the poor and put the country on track to genuine democracy. Cambodia’s people deserve better than this.