When tens of thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets of Phnom Penh shouting “Hun Sen, step down!” in wake of the disputed 2013 general election, it was the biggest threat to the prime minister’s power in a generation.
The protests quickly gained momentum as opposition leader Sam Rainsy called for “non-stop” demonstrations, culminating in around 50,000 taking to the streets by December to call upon the premier step down or announce a new election, along with other demands including a hike in minimum wages.
With the government rattled, the demonstrations were brutally suppressed in January 2014, as security forces opened fire on protesters on Veng Sreng Street in the heart of the capital’s garment factory zone. Five were killed and dozens more were injured.
The mass protests were stopped dead in their tracks and remained that way for almost four years.
Since then, any realistic semblance of democracy in Cambodia appears to have been eroded as political opponents, rights workers and independent media have been targeted. This all culminated in around 200 police officers raiding opposition leader Kem Sokha’s home earlier this month on treason charges widely panned as a politically motivated effort to secure victory in next year’s crucial election. The 64-year-old faces up to 30 years behind bars.
Despite Cambodia’s “descent into outright dictatorship,” as the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights chairman branded it on the day of Sokha’s arrest, the opposition has distanced itself from any suggestion it would call its supporters onto the streets amid warnings of “crackdowns” from the ruling party if there are attempts to do so.
The psychological scars of Veng Sreng, the increasing authoritarian nature of the Cambodian government, and the fact it is Kem Sokha, rather than his exiled-predecessor Sam Rainsy, behind bars mean the chance of snap protests are small.
However, festering frustrations among the public mean that demonstrations could erupt eventually, analysts have said, while Rainsy said there were “all the ingredients” for protesters to return to the streets.
“It’s unlikely. It’s a dangerous time in Cambodia,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
“Back in 2013, the CPP, expecting an easy victory, allowed the opposition a surprising amount of freedom to organize and campaign before the election. This got people into the streets and revved up about the prospects of political change, which then turned to anger amid claims of voter fraud, etc.,” he added.
“The CPP is not going to let this get started a second time.”
The killings that put an end to the 2013 post-election protests served as a warning to the younger generation — who could not recall the horrors of the Pol Pot regime and civil war — that their calls for change could only be pushed so far, Strangio said.
“Veng Sreng showed that there are some young Cambodians willing to openly confront the security forces, but the more important lesson (sadly), was that the bloody crackdown was effective in halting the string of opposition protests,” he said.
“Once the stakes were raised — once the government showed it was willing to shed blood — most protesters backed down and dispersed.”
While opposition supporters risking their lives in the name of democracy did not appear to be on the immediate horizon, Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank, said it could just be the “calm before the storm.”
“I think the government strategy is to keep people numb or to be turned off by politics,” Virak said. “It might work in the short term but in the long run people could still be frustrated which means that it could erupt.”
“I don’t see anything now but, like 2013, these things come when you least expect it,” he said, adding it would more likely happen “organically” rather than through calls from opposition leaders.
The chances of anger spilling onto the streets would be more likely if Rainsy, who is currently in exile in Paris to avoid jail on charges also widely seen as politically motivated, was the one potentially facing the rest of his life in jail, Virak said.
Rainsy has in the past has whipped up support by accusing Hun Sen of being a puppet of the Vietnamese regime that placed him in power after he defected from the Khmer Rouge and helped defeat Pol Pot, while critics have accused the prime minister’s long-time foe of deliberately using xenophobic and inflammatory language.
“I still think Rainsy is a bit more popular, particularly with the Cambodian youth, and also with the more ultra-nationalist element. I think they’re more hardcore so they’re more likely to go protest and take more risks,” Virak said.
Political analyst Cham Bunthet agreed, claiming that supporters of Sokha are generally less hot-headed.
“If Sam Rainsy was in jail it would be very different,” he said.
“Sam Rainsy appeals more to… uneducated people and nationalists — these people don’t express rationale, they express their anger.”
The CNRP line since Sokha’s arrest has been that it would not call for demonstrations, with Mu Sochua telling The Diplomat on Monday that the party did not “want bloodshed” while stating that she was confident that “there will be a political solution.”
But Rainsy cut a very different tone, claiming that “we have all the ingredients for mass protests” while stating there could be a large number of opposition supporters willing to risk their safety amid the deterioration of democracy in Cambodia.
“Possibly yes, because the Hun Sen government has gone beyond acceptable limits,” Rainsy said.
“What happened recently was nothing else than a constitutional coup and the situation has never been so serious since the 1997 military coup,” he said, in reference to the factional fighting that saw Hun Sen consolidate his power over the country.
Rainsy said he “would leave it to the people to decide for themselves” when asked if he would have called for protests were he still at the helm of the party.
The CPP has been unequivocal that it would not allow protests in the same way it did in 2013, while Hun Sen even warned on Sunday that he could dissolve the CNRP for those demonstrations, branding it “an act of conspiracy, treason and betrayal of the country.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan reiterated that anti-government protests would not be permitted under any circumstances.
“We would not [allow it] because of the national security and they might face their own party being dissolved,” Siphan said, adding that nobody has the right to protest the “court process.”
“We would disperse, this is most important, and tell them to go back home… but if there are a number of high-ranking CNRP leaders, the CNRP would be accused of inciting the people to go against the court,” he said.
“That’s not my job,” he replied when asked to define what he meant by “disperse.”
On Monday, Hun Sen doubled down on his threat to dissolve the opposition if it “continued to protect and defend its national traitor,” in reference to Sokha.
While supporters have remained off the streets over Sokha’s arrest, complete dissolution of the party could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, political analyst Bunthet said.
“If they shut down the CNRP, I think that would be different because there a lot of nationalists there…and a lot of people that are driven by emotions, by anger and hatred, so it’s hard to predict,” he said.
One thing that was easier to predict would be the ruling party’s response, he said.
“I’m sure that the government will use their hammer and knock the heads of those who come to the public and protest,” he said.
George Wright is a freelance journalist based in Phnom Penh.