Is Cambodia’s Opposition a Victim of its Own Success?

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Is Cambodia’s Opposition a Victim of its Own Success?

The CNRP inspired people to believe their votes count even in a system where this was always unlikely to be the case.

Is Cambodia’s Opposition a Victim of its Own Success?
Credit: Flickr/Maina Kiai

The Cambodian government was semantically correct when it said, following the CNRP’s dissolution, that Cambodia still has a multi-party system. After all, ten minor parties competed in June’s commune election and they will no doubt field candidates in July’s general election.

But, on the other hand, such semantics also detract from more substantive indicators of political contestation. China, for instance, has a few legally recognized parties, but no one would contest the fact that it is in fact one-party state.

The Cambodia case is an interesting one in this regard and warrants a closer look. As I pointed out in my Diplomat column in April, the 2013 general election was the first at which a third party won no seats in the National Assembly. Therefore, one could say the 2013 election cemented Cambodia as a two-party system, which was how it was heading for July’s general election.

But, then, a two-party system ought to be defined as one where either of the two parties could feasibly win power. But few think (most likely correctly) that the CPP would have willingly handed over power peacefully if it had lost next year’s election. Perhaps, then, a better aphorism for Cambodia is a “State with one Party” – or, maybe, “a Party with a State.”

Indeed, those who say Cambodia is now a dictatorship are engaged in casuistry. Given that the government so easily dissolved the CNRP, amending the laws to formally justify it, either Cambodia was a dictatorship before the CNRP’s dissolution or it isn’t now. If the former is true, then the CNRP’s dissolution was an indication of this fact, and not an aberration.

On the surface, Cambodia has been quasi-democratic for years, and still retains some of the appearances. It has held regular elections since 1993, some relatively free and fair, and the government hasn’t cancelled the next general election. Non-CPP politicians have attained positions of power, at least at local levels. There is a relatively free press, albeit only in relation to the freedom of speech its neighbors don’t enjoy.

But the remains of the CPP’s communist heritage are always noticeable. In the Eighteenth Brumaire, Karl Marx wrote that when attempting to learn a new language, you always begin by translating it back into a language you already know. The same reproduction is often also practiced in politics. The CPP might have renamed itself in the 1990s from the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party and dropped a planned economy for the free-market, but it didn’t change how the State operated as Cambodia transitioned from being the People’s Republic of Kampuchea to the Kingdom of Cambodia in the early 1990s.

Today, the State still remains inseparable from the Party. The military is a good example, as is the civil service and judiciary. The presiding Supreme Court judge who dissolved the CNRP sits on the CPP’s permanent committee. Moreover, the CPP’s narrative is not only that it protects the Cambodian people from disorder and poverty, fairly popular appeals in a country that has known both for too long, but that it also ensures the safety of Cambodia itself. As a result, not only is the State inseparable from the Party, so too is the Nation – at least in the eyes of the CPP faithful.

Indeed, few communist states have “tolerated” formal opposition politics for the simple reason that it makes little sense. Since the Party is the embodiment of the State and the Nation, the Party considers any opposition to its rule as treasonous.

Again, here we find this logic reoccurring in Cambodia. Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s president, was arrested for treason in September. The party was dissolved last week because it is alleged to have been working with foreign powers to overthrow the government. The same “treachery” narrative has been used to close media outlets and NGOs. This opposition equates treachery thinking is hardly new in Cambodia, only more explicit in recent months.

But it was in this “state with one party” that the CNRP operated. And, for the all the inherent contradictions of functioning in such a system, it performed rather well, so much so that the CPP most likely shut it down because the ruling party was fearful of losing July’s general election.

But those who have read my past articles will know I have been rather critical of the CNRP, as anyone should be of a political party that makes large claims about it itself. A corollary contention of mine was that the CNRP’s success or failure ought not to have become synonymous with democratic hopes in Cambodia. The CNRP is (or was) just a political party. Moreover, events in Myanmar demonstrate what happens when democratic aspirations become solely concentrated in the fate of one party: that party might get into power and show itself to be not-so-democratic after all.

Nonetheless, this was what happened in Cambodia. That is why journalists could so readily say after the CNRP’s dissolution that Cambodian democracy died with it. That is why I’ve heard some CNRP supporters say they will boycott next year’s election, as a form of protest, rather than opting for another party. VOA, reporting from rural Cambodia this month, found similar calls of abstention. Here’s one choice quote by a CNRP loyalist: “If there is another opposition but it is not led by Sam Rainsy or Kem Sokha I will not vote.”

What one finds are unhealthy equivalents. The CPP considers itself the embodiment of the Nation, while the CNRP considers itself the embodiment of democracy. Sam Rainsy, the CNRP’s co-founder and former leader, often thought of himself as the only real competitor to Prime Minister Hun Sen, serving an almost destinal mission to save Cambodia, even after fleeing into exile in late 2015. “Hun Sen is scared of me, scared of my name, scared of my voice, scared of my shadow,” he said in June, from abroad.

Moreover, neither party has accepted the legitimacy of either. As I wrote in last week’s column:

The CNRP becomes even more millenarian when one considers that sangkruos cheat translates as “salvation,” as well as “national rescue,” and sounds ominously similar to the name given to the Front that toppled the Khmer Rouge. The CNRP’s rhetoric has long rested on the (incorrect and self-damaging) assertion that the ruling party is a puppet controlled by Hanoi, which would make it illegitimate. The CNRP’s underlying motive then becomes not merely a transition of power but the removal of foreign-seeded party: “national rescue” then becomes far more literal.

Democracy is, of course, under threat when an immensely popular party can be so easily dissolved by the government. And the Supreme Court’s ruling no doubt was intended pour encourager les autres. Some minor parties, including the Candlelight Party, the rebranded Sam Rainsy Party, have said they fear growing too popular in case they are also dissolved.

Still, democratic hopes existed before the CNRP was formed in 2012 (and its two composite parties years earlier) and they will continue to now that it has been dissolved. It is true that a vote for the CNRP would have been the best way of removing the CPP from power, but that isn’t the same as bringing about genuine democracy in Cambodia.

“A legitimate government can only be born from the will of the people,” the CNRP’s vice-president Mu Sochua told me some months ago. Perhaps, then, the CNRP’s greatest contribution to Cambodia’s slow and arduous path to democracy is that it emboldened many people into believing their voices count, even in a system where their votes most likely would have had little impact on who actually rules.