What’s Really Behind Cambodia’s Latest Opposition Crackdown?

A closer look at recent domestic political developments, the forces behind them, and why they matter.

What’s Really Behind Cambodia’s Latest Opposition Crackdown?
Credit: Flickr/Prachatai

Though far from shocking, the arrest of Kem Sokha, the leader of Cambodia’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), without a warrant and in violation of his parliamentary immunity, is yet another step that illustrates the Cambodian government’s rising intolerance of dissent ahead of upcoming polls next year.

Kem Sokha’s arrest on account of treason, which made headlines the world over, has been disputed by the CNRP and is part of an ongoing pattern of politically motivated acts taken by the Cambodian state against the country’s opposition. Given the significance of the event, it is worth examining this development in greater detail as well as considering the consequences it might have for Cambodian politics going forward.

Why Now?

Several motives might be said to lie behind Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recent political action to arrest Kem Sokha. The first is for him and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to have a guaranteed victory in the 2018 national elections. Despite the fact that the arrest apparently violated the immunity protection that should be afforded to Kem Sokha as a member of Cambodia’s Parliament, Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament and chairman of the organization, as quoted in The New York Times, reiterated:

“With the national elections on the horizon, it is clear that it is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to crush the opposition before the campaign even starts. For months, we have been witnessing the escalation of the government attempts to cripple the opposition, but it appears now that Prime Minister Hun Sen is so afraid of what might happen in a genuine vote, he won’t allow for competition at all”.

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With the arrest of the opposition party leader, the CPP could be operating under the assumption that a headless CNRP could result in a decline in its popularity to the CPP’s benefit. Yet it is worth noting that this could also backfire: this could in fact galvanize Cambodians to vote even more in the favor of the opposition seeing the heavy-handedness of the CPP.

Second, the arrest could be seen as part of a deeper suspicion of Prime Minister Hun Sen toward the United States which Hun Sen has long viewed as promoting regime change in Cambodia and employing Kem Sokha as an agent. With this perception, David Chandler, a professor emeritus at Monash University stated, “I can’t see why or how Hun Sen will turn back from where he seems to be headed. I don’t think he wants to”.

The evidence of this factor being at work is there for all to see. The Cambodia Daily, owned by an American family was forced to close on Monday earlier this month due to tax issues. At least 15 radio stations have been commanded to halt broadcasting programming from U.S. government-funded organizations Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Even the non-profit organization that promote democracy like the National Democratic Institute (NDI) have been expelled from Cambodia.

Third, it would be difficult to ignore the role of China’s support for Hun Sen’s regime in his government’s efforts to crack down against the opposition. Following the arrest of the opposition party leader Kem Sokha, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang when asked a question during a press briefing in Beijing, commented that China supported the Cambodian’s efforts to protect national security and stability.

This is part of longstanding Chinese support for Hun Sen that has only accelerated in recent years. It is worth remembering that decades ago, when Hun Sen faced international criticism for his takeover of Cambodia after ousting Prince Norodom Ranariddh, China stepped in to recognize his government. This patron-client relationship, as most scholars would depict it, has been long at work.

Chinese behavior is also partly rooted in its own suspicion of U.S. efforts to topple the Chinese government as well as other governments around the world it does not favor, including Cambodia. Matthew Bell, reporter at Public Radio International, noted that within the Chinese Communist Party, there is still the sense that U.S. and western imperialist forces are continuing to plot to bring down the Communist Party of China, citing the experience of the Tiananmen Square to convince itself that America wanted to take China down.

Seen from this perspective, it is not difficult to understand why Beijing views sustaining the Hun Sen regime at the expense of opposition forces as being in its interests. For instance, considering that Cambodia’s position toward the South China Sea issue may not be the same from the present one if the CNRP wins the next year elections, it is easy to see why this might be a risk for Beijing.

Fourth and lastly, apart from support from China abroad, Hun Sen also enjoys control of the military at home, thereby increasing his ability to manipulate politics in his favor. As Deputy Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Chea Dara said in 2015, “Every solider is a member of the People’s Army and belongs to the CPP because Samdech Decho [Hun Sen] is the feeder, caretaker, commander, and leader of the army. I speak frankly when I say that the army belongs to Cambodia People’s Party.”

The recent passage of a law that allows members of the armed forces to participate in election campaign has further blurred the separation that ought to exist between the military and the state.

Ros Ravuth, a political analyst, has said that if a national army aligns itself politically, it loses it neutrality, and such action could prompt a military coup if an opposition party wins future elections.

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What Next for the CNRP?

As for the CNRP, there are a few limited options. First of all, while already found guilty and charged with treason at this point, Kem Sokha has little choice but to resign from his position of being a president of the CNRP in order to ensure the continued survival of the party. The Law on Political Parties, which was amended again earlier this year, clearly stipulates that parties cannot involve a “convicted criminal” in their activities. That had led former opposition leader Sam Rainsy to resign, and would follow that this would apply to Kem Sokha as well.

As Profesor Sophal Ear has pointed out, “For sure, Mr. Sokha will have to resign to keep the party from dissolving, but that’s playing by the rules of the game that have been created to result in this outcome. Play outside those rules, by involving other actors, and maybe this doesn’t have to happen.”

No one knows for sure who will be the next president of the CNRP. The most immediate job now is to secure a better and trustworthy substitute and makes sure there is no ‘conflict of interest’ within the party while picking up the replacement.

Beyond the question of leadership, there is the task of consolidating domestic social forces in the country that are interested in change ahead of elections. The commune elections demonstrated that the CPP’s share of winning communes was declining relative to past polls, which was yet another indicator that most Cambodian people now are eager to see change.

At the same time, it is worth remembering that the success of the CNRP in the 2018 national elections will also be contingent on its own performance, including that of commune chiefs, rather than just how the CPP fares. There are a few good models that other CNRP commune chiefs could arguably learn from, such as Sin Rozeth and Chen Sokngeng. These two commune chiefs from the CNRP have been regarded highly among many for getting the job done quickly and making the local people feel satisfied.

The victory of the CNRP in the 2018 national elections is highly likely if the majority of the commune chiefs perform their tasks effectively and the expectation of the voters can be met. The real question remains what actions the CPP will take if this outcome takes place.

A third factor that could be added to the mix is the role of foreign assistance in Cambodian politics, which the CNRP could choose to mobilize as part of its response leading up to polls. Mu Sochua, who is one of three deputies to Kem Sokha in the CNRP, has already stated that foreign donors have to open their eyes to Cambodia’s false democracy and put more Hun Sen. She also urged the international community to do whatever it takes to convince Hun Sen that he would have no legitimacy from a flawed election and hoped the international community would live up to her expectation. Another CNRP senior leader, Yim Sovann, in an interview with YAYO radio, said that mass demonstration has not been discussed yet.

So far, international pressure on Hun Sen seems to have not been effective. As pointed out earlier, as long as China remains a dominant factor in Cambodian politics, the international community will not have strong bargaining power over Hun Sen. How the international community such as the United States and the West more broadly responds to this calling is what we might call the ‘wait and see’ situation. The CNRP, for its part, has little choice but to call for some kind of help from the international community.

All in all, the political situation in Cambodia is becoming a dangerous playing field. We can expect that the CPP will do whatever it takes to hold on to power, while the CNRP will have to suffer the consequences of this along the way. Though the CPP might be said to have more advantages over the CNRP given the power it enjoys as the ruling party, the true power of democracy rests with the people. What decision they make will affect real lives down the road, and as the political situation evolves, getting the right read of developments on the ground will continue to be important as ever.

Sovinda Po is a Cambodian scholar at the School of Advanced International and Area Studies, East China Normal University, Shanghai.