ASEAN Beat

Cambodia’s Opposition Party Must End its Policy Silence Now

The CNRP’s weakened position makes the case for unveiling policy specifics stronger than ever.

David Hutt
Cambodia’s Opposition Party Must End its Policy Silence Now
Credit: Flickr/Luc Forsyth

Ever since the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was forcibly dissolved and its president arrested for treason in late 2017, we have heard nothing from its politicians in exile except promises about their fated return and why there must be a change of government. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), in power since 1979, and Prime Minister Hun Sen, are running the country like a dictatorship, amassing money for themselves and do little for ordinary Cambodians, the CNRP says.

Sam Rainsy, who resigned as the party’s president in February 2017 but today controversially serves as acting-president, has called for Cambodians to “take to the streets to oust Hun Sen,” for Interior Minister Sar Kheng to launch a palace coup, for the military to turn on the government, while also calling on foreign governments, namely the European Union and the United States, to support the case for the CNRP’s reinstatement as a legal entity in Cambodia. At the moment, however, Brussels and Washington, which are threatening economic sanctions on Cambodia, are mainly calling for human rights reforms and the release of Kem Sokha, the CNRP president still detained on treason charges.

Yet, in 17 months, we have heard next to nothing about policies from the CNRP. Some might justify this; it is now an illegal entity in Cambodia, after all, and few avenues are gaping for it to return to politics. More pressing issues, therefore, need addressing before the matter of policies and political finesse are discussed, some might say. What good is a detailed prospectus of governance if the party stands no chance of even competing in an election, let alone being about to form a government? Realism needs to come before idealism.

But alternatively, this could be seen as shortsighted and counterproductive. The CNRP’s entire spiel is that it is the party that could lead to actual change in Cambodia, so knowing exactly what change it intends would be good to hear. More importantly, it must demonstrate to the Cambodian people why they should support its return; if Sam Rainsy is going to ask them to take to the streets and face down the CPP’s guns, it might be nice if Sam Rainsy tells the people exactly what they might risk their life for (beyond the ambiguity of promised change).

The results of the 2013 general election and 2017 local election hold the CNRP in good stead; it won around 44 percent of the popular vote at both. But politics – and, more importantly, the ruling CPP – have move on since then, visibly to the CNRP’s detriment.

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To take just one example, the trade union movement, which arose alongside Sam Rainsy’s political aspirations in the late 1990s and coalesced with the CNRP after the 2013 ballot, has been all but been silenced by the government. Meanwhile, the country’s 700,000-odd garment-factory workers, the CNRP’s base, have seen their minimum wages rise to $182 per month, up from $153 in 2017 and $80 in 2013. At that year’s election, the CNRP campaigned on a promise to raise the minimum wage, but, as Hun Sen is fond of pointing out, while the CNRP only promised this, it was the CPP government that saw wages more than double in five years. Today, it is commonplace to find Hun Sen speaking at a garment factory.

What is clear is that the CPP government hasn’t only tried to decimate the CNRP – its only genuine political rival – through legalist means, such as with the Supreme Court’s dissolution ruling, but also politically by diminishing its appeal among the party’s natural supporters. The former might prove to be temporary, but the latter could be more permanent.

Granted, the CNRP has always avoided issuing detailed manifestos. Since its formation in 2012, its politicians have preferred rousing rhetoric and generalities over substance and detail. Its seven-point manifesto going into the 2013 general election consisted of promises, not an actionable set of policies, and there was next to nothing about whether the state could afford these promises (the CPP went on to adopt most of these policies.) Even when it was a legal entity and the main opposition party in Cambodia, with 55 seats in the National Assembly, it failed to produce its own “shadow cabinet.”

It has long been difficult to separate the CPP and CNRP in some aspects of policy. What would the CNRP offer garment workers that the CPP hasn’t already? How would it deal with land rights, arguably the most explosive issue today? How would it ensure economic growth remains high but is sustainable? In other areas, especially foreign affairs, it would be sanguine to think the CNRP elite actually has a policy. Would the CNRP continue to rely on China-led investment for economic growth, regardless of the costs? Or would it plug the stream of Chinese money, which many Cambodians now think is a sensible option but would certainly slow economic development? No one really knows.

Seen from this perspective, far from being pointless, planning and unveiling specific policies may actually prove a smart move by the CNRP. Revealing a detailed, coherent manifesto today, even in exile, would be a demonstration of confidence among the CNRP leadership. It would show the Cambodian people why they ought to care if the party is outlawed or not. It would show investors and foreign governments that they could actually be the party to govern.

But there is another factor, too. At the moment, the CNRP’s politicians in exile are working hard to have foreign governments support their case for reinstatement. So far, however, few foreign statesmen have said this is a priority for them. One suspects this is because they think Hun Sen won’t budge on this matter. But it’s also possible that foreign governments don’t want to stake their claims on a fractious and untested party. The CNRP might reason that if it unveils a host of policy recommendations that chimes with even some of what the EU and U.S. want to see taking place in Cambodia, then it might get far more support from Brussels and Washington.

It might, for example, explain exactly how it will impose rule of law (when rule by law is the current way in Cambodia) or reveal an economic plan that is able to commingle protection of workers’ rights with guarantees for foreign investors. It might indicate which laws enacted by the CPP government it thinks should be scrapped. Or what laws it would introduce, if it ever had the chance to play at leadership. More still, it could signal to lawmakers in the European and American capitals exactly what role it thinks Cambodia, under its helm, could play in Asian politics: remain firmly behind China, attempt real multilateralism, or side with the United States?

For years, the CNRP has staked its claim on being the party of change in Cambodia without clearly saying what change it would actually enact. Today, more than ever, it needs to remedy this.