Could the End of Cambodia’s Opposition Be a Good Thing?

Recent Features


Could the End of Cambodia’s Opposition Be a Good Thing?

A closer look at the implications of the ongoing government crackdown in the Southeast Asian state ahead of upcoming polls.

Could the End of Cambodia’s Opposition Be a Good Thing?
Credit: Flickr/Maina Kiai

Is the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s largest opposition party, going to fight the latest crackdown on its members, or will it simply admit defeat and allow itself to be dissolved? That is the question we Cambodia-watchers are now asking after Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s president, was arrested in the early hours of August 3 at his Phnom Penh home and accused of treason. Days later, he was officially charged, despite claims that his parliamentary immunity was infringed. He could face between 15 and 30 years in jail.

Kem Sokha’s arrest comes as an English-language newspaper in Cambodia was closed on Monday because of taxation, radio stations carrying U.S.-funded news outlet’s programs were shuttered last week, and an U.S. State Department-funded democracy-promoting organization was ordered to cease operations, and its staff expelled from the country, last month. Throughout all of this, accusations of U.S. or foreign interference, or outright conspiracy, have been used to justify the closures.

Kem Sokha took over leadership of the CNRP in February after exiled Sam Rainsy stepped down to avoid the party’s dissolution. That month, the government rushed amendments through parliament that gave it powers to close any political party for vague reasons, one being if the party leader holds a criminal conviction. (Sam Rainsy has many defamation charges to his name.)  Now, after Kem Sokha’s arrest, the CNRP’s dissolution is looking likely. Moreover, there are noises that the party might not fight it this time, which would require imposing a new party leader soon, despite a general election only ten months away.

“There is no point for anyone to assume the leadership role when they know they will be placed in prison or forced to be a puppet just to have a meaningless opposition to legitimize the upcoming election,” Kem Monovithya, Kem Sokha’s daughter and the CNRP’s deputy public affairs officer, told the Phnom Penh Post (now the only independent English-language newspaper left in Cambodia after this week’s closure of the Cambodia Daily).

Pol Ham, one of the CNRP’s deputy presidents, was also quoted by the Post as saying the party won’t publicly protest Kem Sokha’s arrest. He added, what could have been with tongue-in-cheek, “it is good if they dissolve the party since I also want to retire… I want to go to the pagoda since I am old now.” Mu Sochua, another deputy president, said that if the party doesn’t appoint a new leader then it could be dissolved “any day.”

People who have read my column might know that I have regularly criticized the CNRP. Amongst other things, I’ve admonished it for embracing anti-Vietnamese bigotry for the sake of votes; for failing to come up with meaningful policies in its manifestos; and its leader not being brave enough to stand up to the government, now ruled by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) under Prime Minister Hun Sen for decades.

But the CNRP is now in a position that no-one would envy. On Tuesday, the government’s mouthpiece, Fresh News, a media outlet, claimed that several other CNRP politicians were on a government blacklist and could soon be arrested in connection to Kem Sokha’s treason charge. This list included Pol Ham and Kem Sokha’s daughters. Interestingly enough, all but one (I believe) are from the Human Rights Party, the party Kem Sokha formed in 2007 that joined with the Sam Rainsy Party in 2012 to create the CNRP. Might dividing the CNRP between these two camps, which have long been factional, be a goal?

So what happens if the CNRP is dissolved? Certainly, it would be a death knell to whatever remnants of democracy Cambodia has left. The opposition, then, might hope that its immolation would be enough to force the international community into action. Charles Santiago, chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, was on the spot when he said in a statement: “If members of the international community, including and especially donors, fail to speak up and take action now, they risk ending up complicit in Cambodia’s descent into outright dictatorship.”

The international community has been rather verbose in its criticism of the recent crackdown on media, NGOs, and the opposition, unlike its copy-and-paste statements issued in the past. However, the question is whether it will go any further than just well-meaning statements. As I pointed out elsewhere: “If Washington does opt to impose some sort of sanctions, [the] government would no doubt point to them as proof that its claim of American interference was founded.”

Moreover, any sanctions on Cambodia would set an uncomfortable precedent for the United States or the European Union. However bad Cambodia is getting, it is not as bad as conditions in Vietnam, which doesn’t even pretend to hold elections, or Thailand, which has been governed by a military junta for three years. And then there’s trade. The EU is currently negotiating a free-trade agreement with Vietnam, for example. If Cambodia is sanctioned by Europe because of politics, then surely the EU-Vietnam FTA is a no-go.

An alternative, if the CNRP is dissolved, would be its members to form another party. The problem with this, though, is that the CNRP’s support relies a great deal on the figures of Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, even when they are jailed or exiled, since Cambodian politics is incredibly personalist. Without them, considering no other opposition figure garners so much public popularity, support would no doubt diminish. One other possibility is that all opposition political parties boycott the next election, which has been rumored. This is unlikely, considering that many of the smaller parties are just vehicles for political figures.

But what about if the CNRP sucks it up and decides to try to carry on for the next ten months until the general election? Whoever takes over as the party’s leader, as Kem Monovithya said, might also be imprisoned. Maybe, then, it would need to go through several leaders. Also, it would need to remain silent for ten months. No protests; no rallies; no public speaking. Members of the CNRP in Kampong Chhnang province have already been banned this week from meeting. The provincial police chief said he would “not allow” the party to “discuss politics”, as the Post reported. But would ten months of figurative hibernation lose the party support? Some, perhaps. But as Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy at Occidental College in Los Angeles, told me this week:

The opposition sustained a lot of abuse prior to the national election of 2013 and especially the commune elections of 2017 and still came back like a zombie, ready to receive votes. This apparently is quite worrisome for the ruling party. They run against a walking dead party and still barely win. Could it be that people actually want change?

But could a walking-dead party effectively compete against the ruling CPP in July 2018? Who knows? But the fact that the CNRP made solid gains in June’s commune election, which the CPP won, could be an indication that support is growing. Plus, people tend to vote differently in commune elections than general elections, which likely works in the CNRP’s favor.

Still, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated this week that he wants to remain in power for another decade to “maintain stability”. On top of that, the government is opening its checkbook. Days before Kem Sokha’s arrest, the prime minister promised another rise in the minimum wage of garment workers, many of whom have been loyal to the CNRP for years, as well as state pensions by 2019 and employer-covered health insurance by next year, the Cambodia Daily reported at the time.

The government has also promised numerous other social policies, which would certainly siphon some support away from the opposition, which typically promises such reforms. As I argued last year in the Diplomat, the government is well-heeled at Janus-faced politics:

In 2018, the electorate might be tempted to stick with mild reform that is visible rather than genuine change that might not be possible, given that Cambodia has never known a peaceful transfer of power between political parties and the CPP has already threatened it might not allow one to take place. Over the course of the next two years, the CNRP’s leaders will face graver tasks than just staying out of prison if they want to take power in 2018.