The reaction from Cambodia’s opposition leaders to the jailing of 11 supporters for up to 20 years was totally gormless. But more importantly, the impotent behavior of the man who desperately wants to be prime minister, Sam Rainsy, was just plain disturbing.
All were found guilty of fomenting an insurrection and jailed following protests that turned bloody at Freedom Park, the de-facto base for opposition protests, on July 15 last year.
On the day, there were witnesses. Government forces – as always – were antagonistic and, according to the many independent reports from the scene, so were activists from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who were continuing to taunt and protest unsubstantiated allegations of widespread cheating at national elections.
Aggravating their plight in court was a boycott by lawyers: a well-meaning attempt to highlight what they say is the innocence of their clients. However, no court in the world respects that type of political tantrum. In this case the judges reacted swiftly with guilty convictions and sentences of seven to 20 years.
Yet Sam Rainsy, leader of the CNRP, ignored media opportunities as he flew off to Paris and said nothing but nice things about the man whom ultimately bears responsibility for the courts: Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Last year Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy agreed to a ‘culture of dialogue’ between them as part of a deal that also increased the opposition’s say in government and was aimed at ending more than a year of protests and public upheaval following 2013 polls.
Since the deal was struck, the pair have been seen together on holidays, posting selfies together on social media and raising eyebrows by behaving more like leaders of a coalition government between the CNRP and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) rather than opposing politicians.
The CNRP and the Cambodian diaspora, which the opposition relies heavily upon for financial support, were livid with the sentencing. But they have also said little, perhaps unwilling to upset the first anniversary of the ‘culture of dialogue.’
Speaking to The Phnom Penh Post after sentencing, Rainsy simply praised the ‘culture of dialogue’ as an historic turning point, saying the political situation had improved “markedly” and that he was sticking by his commitment to the policy.
“[The ‘culture of dialogue’] reflects a long-term vision and must not be derailed by day-to-day events as painful as they may be. It will have ups and downs but will continue to progress,” Rainsy said.
Only human rights groups spoke out loudly, even claiming great conspiracy theories linking the jailings to border protests against Vietnam and new laws the government says will regulate non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the country. NGOs say the laws are designed to shut them down.
“Police entered the courtroom as soon as the judges went to deliberate the verdict. This makes it clear that this was a show trial with a predetermined ending,” said Naly Pilorge, director of the human rights group LICADHO.
But Sam Rainsy’s desire to say nothing after the sentencing of those who supported him remains disconcerting and was indicative of the farce he calls a ‘culture of dialogue’.
New York-based Human Rights Watch noted: “The convictions and long sentences imposed on the Phnom Penh 11 appear to be a challenge to the ‘culture of dialogue’ touted by Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy.”
That was an understatement.
Cambodian precedents suggest that the jailed will appeal and Hun Sen will probably initiate a royal pardon if only to highlight his sense of noblesse oblige within an electorate where his popularity has waned substantially.
That would indicate that despite all the protests, violence and deals between the CPP and the CNRP over the last two years, not that much has changed in Cambodian politics with the possible exception of Sam Rainsy’s standing. He now has what human rights groups would argue are 11 political prisoners on his hands and he has had nothing to say in their favor.
Luke Hunt can be followed on twitter @lukeanthonyhunt