Interview: Cambodia’s Political Turmoil and Future Prospects

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Interview: Cambodia’s Political Turmoil and Future Prospects

The Diplomat talks with Monovithya Kem about the current state of the country’s politics and its future.

Interview: Cambodia’s Political Turmoil and Future Prospects

Cambodian deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha (left), pictured here with Mu Sochua.

Credit: Flickr/Maina Kiai

Monovithya Kem, the daughter of Cambodia’s deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, is the deputy director-general of public affairs of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – the country’s main opposition party.

During her recent visit to Washington, D.C., she spoke with The Diplomat’s associate editor Prashanth Parameswaran about the current state of Cambodian politics and the country’s future. An edited version of that interview follows.

It has been quite a troubling few weeks for Cambodia – with several incidents including the beating of two opposition parliamentarians and the removal of your father, Kem Sokha, from his role as National Assembly vice-president. What does this suggest about the current state of the country’s politics?

It suggests that the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), is going back to the 1990s mentality. And I think that’s mainly because they think they can get away with violence, illegal arrests, and oppressing dissenting voices.

I think this calls for both parties to try to establish a true culture of dialogue. I don’t think the culture of dialogue existed yet so far. We have been talking about it for a while now but it is just an attempt from the opposition side to give the ruling party a chance, to give peace a chance, to give stability a chance. But the ruling party so far has not taken that up. I think now is the time for both the ruling party and the opposition to see if we can start a real culture of dialogue. Otherwise, if this continues, it cannot be good for either the opposition or the ruling party; it is damaging for both.

What impact does the removal of Kem Sokha have on the relationship between the opposition and the ruling party?

I would say the relationship had been broken even before the removal, but the removal is just an official confirmation of that.

And again, the relationship will deteriorate further if we don’t return to the table and start talking. In doing so, we have to start by revisiting the July 22 agreement [reached between the opposition and ruling party to end a nearly year-long political standoff following the 2013 general election] because so far the ruling party has violated that agreement. So, if we are saying we want to start or at least try to reestablish the culture of dialogue, the first thing we need to do is discuss the July 22 agreement and get the ruling party to start respecting the agreement all over again.

That includes: no violence, no arrests, electoral reforms, and also recognizing the fact that the vice presidency is supposed to belong to the CNRP and it is up to the CNRP to nominate whoever we see fit. The CPP has no right to point out which candidate is fit for the vice-president seat. Otherwise, it means that the CNRP has no independence in making our own decisions as a political party.

So far, the CNRP has said that no replacement candidate will be put forward following Kem Sokha’s removal. How do you see this disagreement being resolved – if at all – moving forward?

The reason the CNRP is not putting a candidate forward is because we know that this is a move to violate the independence of our party. The ruling party is trying to tell the CNRP who it can work with and who it cannot work with. But that is not up to the CPP to say. Therefore we are not just going to put a candidate to please the ruling party. If we are revisiting the July 22 agreement, the only candidate that will be put forward again for this position is the same candidate, which is Kem Sokha. And so we have decided as a party that if we cannot have Kem Sokha in this position again, we are not going to propose any candidate.

Also, we are not going to propose any candidate because we see the removal as unconstitutional and we are not going to take part in something like that. By replacing a new candidate, it means that we approve the process of the removal of Kem Sokha, which is unconstitutional, and we cannot do that. We as a democratic party – a principled party – we cannot take part in something like that.

The CNRP has publicly called for the United Nations to join an investigation into the beating of the parliamentarians. What do you think the prospects are for such a move? More broadly, what role do you think the international community ought to play following an incident like this?

We have urged the Cambodian government to request the UN human rights office to take part in the investigation. So far, the Cambodian government has not made such a request. We as an opposition party cannot make such a request.

Although the Cambodian authorities have arrested three attackers, that is not enough. We have to establish the link between the attackers and the people behind them. And so far, obvious evidence that is all over social media has suggested that there is a direct link between the attackers and the prime minister and his son, who is an MP as well. So the investigation cannot stop at the arrest of a few attackers who are put behind bars; the investigation has to also focus on the links: who is behind them; who ordered them. This is not random; this is an organized attack.

Are you concerned about the impact that these moves by the ruling party will have on the unity of the opposition and support for the CNRP as we move closer to commune elections in 2017 and national elections in 2018?

This move is intended to divide the opposition as well as to demoralize our supporters. But it is up to us, the opposition, whether or not we allow these tactics to work, and so far we have not allowed it to work. Inside the party we still have strong unity; the fact that we are not going to put a candidate forward to replace Kem Sokha has sent a strong message to the ruling party that their divisive tactics are not working.

Furthermore, after the beating of the parliamentarians and the removal of Kem Sokha, we have garnered more sympathy from our supporters instead. And even an average Cambodian who is neutral – neither an opposition supporter nor a ruling party supporter – after seeing that, they will have a much more negative opinion about the ruling party. So, in a way, the ruling party is shooting themselves in the foot. But the question is: do they care? Perhaps they know that their popularity is already at the very bottom and there is no way to pull that back up. But it definitely has no negative impact in terms of unity or population support on the CNRP.

Beyond these recent incidents, there are fears that further moves could lead the country to descend into a political crisis. How do you think that all parties can move forward to avoid such an outcome which, as you say, would be damaging for everyone?

First of all, I don’t think that the ruling party would push any further if, we, the CNRP, along with national and international observers, do not allow them. The ruling party always first tests the water to see how far they can push. If they can get away with it, of course they will push it further. But if the CNRP shows our strength, and the international community – specifically the donor community – fulfills its obligation to Cambodia, I don’t believe that the ruling party will have the space to push this any further.

The first step, again, is to establish dialogue. Like I said, dialogue never existed. We like the idea that it’s around but it hasn’t been around. So the ruling party has to have a genuine intention to have dialogue with us and that can start with the July 22 agreement. We have to look over the agreement and the ruling party has to start respecting the agreement again. That could include the release of all the 15 of CNRP members, putting Kem Sokha back into his position, and the many other points of the July 22 agreement. That’s how we can move forward – by respecting what had resolved the deadlock to begin with a year ago on July 22.

I know it is still early days, but with the ongoing political turmoil and elections on the horizon, what are some of the things you think national and international observers should watch for and focus on over the next few years?

So what we should focus on ahead of us – after this crisis hopefully will be resolved – is to ensure that we will have a free and fair election. Unless we have that process, we will again have a deadlock just like last year. And this time I don’t think the Cambodian people will put up with another fraudulent election. So the donor community and both parties need to start to pay attention and focus on electoral reform. And we call on donors such as the Japan and the European Union to pay close attention to that; that the process is something that is credible, not only to the two parties but also the Cambodian people at large.

Another issue we need to pay attention to is the peaceful transfer of power in case the CNRP will be the winner in 2018. Actually the recent harassment from the ruling party is a sign of their fear of losing the next election. So we need to start thinking now about what the CNRP can do, and what the international community and donor community can do, to ensure there will be a peaceful transfer of power. From the Cambodian side, we can start again with dialogue, but it has to be genuine dialogue. We need to start building trust. And the ruling party has not made that easy by arresting our members, by inflicting violence on us. It’s not really trust. They’re doing the opposite of what we are trying to do.