The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) took years to form but weeks to fully unravel.
The party’s two key leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, thwarted early attempts at a union with insults and sideways glances before merging their two parties in 2012. Just over a year later, the new opposition shocked the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) by nearly winning a national election marred by allegations of fraud. Tens of thousands of supporters took to the streets calling for the removal of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who by then had already spent almost three decades in power. The movement quieted after five garment workers were shot dead by police during a January 2014 protest, but the CNRP’s continued rise had the aura of inevitability — a point driven home by inroads the party made on CPP turf in this June’s local elections.
Just three months later, the CNRP is leaderless and on the brink of dissolution. Sam Rainsy has been forced out as president and lives in exile, Kem Sokha has been in jail for five weeks on charges of treason, and over half the party’s lawmakers have fled the country. On Thursday, Hun Sen said the Supreme Court would dissolve the CNRP “soon,” the Phnom Penh Post reported. Mu Sochua, a CNRP deputy president, said on Wednesday that the party is “preparing for the worst.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the CPP had no desire to dissolve parties but accused the CNRP of forcing the government’s hand by disrespecting the law, the ruling party, the king, and democratic pluralism. “They try everything to destabilize an elected government,” he said on Friday.
Most observers see other motives behind the moves, which come ten months ahead of a national election in which the CNRP is (or was) the only viable challenger to the ruling party. Hun Sen has always been clear that the only credible votes are the ones he wins. “I can continue as prime minister for 10 more years. It is not difficult for me,” he said in a speech last month. Given the former Khmer Rouge commander’s sweeping control over state institutions and security forces, few analysts gave the CNRP much shot of taking power through elections.
It’s a view shared even by Sam Rainsy, who wrote on Thursday that Hun Sen would inevitably crackdown on the opposition “because he knows he would lose to the CNRP the general elections scheduled for July 2018.”
Still, some observers argue that by abiding by the capricious rules of a system stacked against it, the opposition played right into the government’s hands.
“Obviously it’s not all their fault,” said Lee Morgenbesser, an assistant professor at Australia’s Griffith University who studies authoritarian regimes. “Hun Sen has done all he can to eradicate them. [But] I think they made several mistakes after the 2013 election that compounded their problems.”
Chief among the CNRP’s missteps, Morgenbesser and others say, was the July 2014 compromise that ended the opposition’s months-long boycott of the National Assembly in exchange for a variety of promises from the government, including a reformed National Election Committee. The deal, which was opposed by Kem Sokha but championed by Sam Rainsy, also ushered in a so-called “culture of dialogue” that Morgenbesser says legitimized the CPP’s hold on power and put Sam Rainsy “in a straightjacket.”
Sam Rainsy’s acquiescence played right into Hun Sen’s hands, according to Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a political scientist who authored Cambodia’s Second Kingdom: Nation, Imagination, and Democracy.
“What the CNRP had going for them in 2013 was an emerging sense of fearlessness, which created a momentum when emboldened supporters took to the streets,” she wrote in an email. “After the violent government crackdown of January 2014, the ‘culture of dialogue’ put the lid on popular anger and prevented it from hitting the streets. The lack of a threat of violent protest is the critical difference which allows the CPP to do now what they couldn’t do in 2014.”
Sochua acknowledged that the decision to re-enter the National Assembly was unpopular among some supporters at the time. Still, “it was the right move,” she said from Berlin, where she is petitioning European leaders to place sanctions on the government. “Otherwise there might have been bloodshed.”
The specter of the five garment workers killed by military police during protests in January 2014 loomed over the party. When the government threatened Kem Sokha with arrest last year, and when the CPP passed legislation this year that allowing parties to be dissolved, CNRP supporters stayed home. Opposition lawmakers instead staged symbolic boycotts that CPP spokesmen laughed off as laziness.
“The CNRP leadership had twin constraints: it is a party that respects the ‘rule of law’ until the bitter end and is determined to avoid any bloodshed,” Noren-Nilsson said. “Never giving up on mass protests, regardless of what violence might follow — and the human cost might have been staggering — could perhaps have allowed the CNRP to stay in the game.”
There are other tools the CNRP might have put to use. U.S. political scholars Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik analyzed democratic movements in Ukraine, Serbia, and elsewhere that successfully toppled quasi-autocratic regimes in their a 2010 paper “Defeating Dictators: Electoral Change and Stability in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes.”
The academics found that successful opposition parties coordinated with civil society and Western governments to mount a variety of approaches to weaken the government ahead of elections, including leaked public opinion polls and voter registration drives. But they acknowledged that the parties had to convince the electorate to vote for them and “defend their choices in the streets — a very tall order.”
The CPP’s de facto press arm, Fresh News, has claimed that the CNRP followed that strategy to a letter. It points to photos of workshops hosted by foreign organizations, including the U.S.-based pro-democracy NGO National Democratic Institute, which was forced closed in August, as proof of a broad conspiracy to unseat Hun Sen. But to Morgenbesser, the CNRP failed to follow the example set by successful foreign opposition groups, including the color revolutionaries in the Balkans and post-Soviet states.
“If the CNRP really had its head on properly, it could have helped launch a color revolution,” he said. “But it didn’t, and hasn’t tried.”
The CNRP was also split along factional fault lines around its two leaders, with the party’s sole royal member, Prince Sisowath Thomico, threatening to The Cambodia Daily last year to leave a “divided” party that was “working as individuals.”
Cambodian social scientist and political analyst Meas Nee said the divisions didn’t matter in the end.
“I think no matter what way the CNRP tried to escape… they couldn’t,” he said. “The government can create a new law at any time to fulfill their purpose.”
The current crackdown marked the end of Cambodia’s third attempt at democracy after brief flirtations with the system during the French colonial era and under King Norodom Sihanouk, Nee said. With the optimism of 1993 UN-coordinated elections a distant memory, Nee, a friend of slain political analyst Kem Ley, feared the CNRP might not be the only casualty of the change in weather.
“Let me survive through the current situation,” he said on Friday.
Thousands of miles away in Paris, Sam Rainsy suggested the CNRP had reasons outside of elections to challenge Hun Sen.
“We wanted to test his madness,” Sam Rainsy said. “This is bringing him closer and closer to his end.”
Ben Paviour is a freelance journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.